Reaching into the corners: 12 ways learning can be hard – and what to do about it.

When I observe lessons I sit at the back – mainly to get out of the way. As I scan from my vantage point, I can spot students who are finding it hard to engage in the lesson. Often this is happening without the teacher noticing -because from their point of view, they see plenty of students engaged, answering, participating and all can seem well. They are working their socks off. But this stuff is hard and students can easily fall between the gaps!

From the back of the class, with nothing else to think about, you can see just how hard it can be for a teacher to focus and transfer all their effort, skill, experience, knowledge such that every student is learning. Students can be present, even busy, and still not really be learning much.

Why might this be? What can we do about it?

Problems Solutions
Feeling Adrift.
At a basic level the student isn’t mentally involved or doesn’t feel involved and their understanding isn’t developing or checked explicitly. Their difficulties go undetected; false assumptions are made based on outwardly compliant behaviours. They feel like the lesson is going on around them but they’re not in it.
Make Check for Understanding a solid default questioning mode along with Cold Calling and deliberately, conspicuously reach into the corners of the class... making eye contact, projecting your voice, moving around where possible to bring everyone into the circle of the instructional exchanges. Search for Error. Find out who isn’t sure – make that feel safe; make it your mission.
Don’t have the prior knowledge.
Teacher is making assumptions about the starting point – but the students don’t have the foundations needed.
Make the process of establishing the foundational knowledge an explicit part of curriculum design and the routines of lessons. Go back to move forward. Don’t assume anything. Check. Find out. Reteach old ideas before re-integrating them into new ones. If they don’t know it, teach it – there’s no real short cut.
Too abstract.
The ideas don’t connect with students’ experience of the world. They can’t visualise the model or understand the grammar terminology; they don’t have examples to pin the ideas to.
Use as many concrete examples as you can. Real life case studies, things students will have seen, experienced, heard of, touched. Build on what they know and understand. Check the weakest students deliberately – what model are they working with? What experiences can they build on? Find the solid ground.
Don’t have the language.
It’s common for teachers to use a lot of technical language that they don’t explicitly teach to students so they all can use it. anaphora, denominator, erosion, participle, commutative, sulphate, randomised, increased incrementally,
Use Deliberate Vocabulary Development techniques. Everyone should say the words – individually, chorally, in pairs, verbally, in writing, in new contexts… Make it an explicit and prominent feature of lessons that everyone needs to use and practise all the key terms you want them to know, not just copying words from board to book without practising in between.
Steps are too big.
This can apply to practical demonstrations, modelled writing, maths problems, conceptual explanations… there’s just too much to take on board.
This is classic cognitive load territory. Break it down; break it down even further; practise individual components down to a level of granularity that students can absorb and can practise successfully. Then rebuild. Find what they can do and then push them on just a bit more…
Watching, not learning.
This applies to the modelling scenario. You show them how to write or solve the problem or follow the procedure but, despite watching what you do, they can’t do it themselves afterwards. They didn’t really understand what you were doing.
Make the modelling exchange with worked examples and demonstrations even more interactive in even smaller steps. Narrate your thinking for one small element, check students’ understanding – get them to practise just that step; then move on. Later increase the size of the chunks you model at once but not at first. Scaffold extensively if needed and then withdraw support slowly – build confidence, then independence.
Not made to think:
This applies to all manner of questioning scenarios. If it’s hands up, students are calling out, or their partners do all the thinking in unstructured group and pair work; if they are only asked ‘if they can remember’ not ‘what’ they remember; if half-answers are the norm… all of these things allow a student to sit back and wait. They learn that, unless they volunteer, they never have to answer. They don’t have to think.. so they don’t.
Change all of this around. Don’t ask them to think; make them all think, with good tasks and questions. Use Cold Calling – everyone might be asked to answer any question. Reach into the corners to select respondents. Make pair and group work highly structured so anyone could be asked to represent the discussion. Make it so that thinking is unavoidable through the structure of tasks and questions given to everyone.
Need more time to think.
The time given for tasks and questions is always rushed; students develop a learned helplessness – they don’t have time to flush out what they do know, make a link to the new ideas, make connections, formulate a response… Bosh! Someone else has answered and they can’t finish their internal reasoning. They learn not to bother trying.
Give student time. Model the thinking process.. and then, with questioning accountability processes in places, give them time to think. If students are working at different rates, give the faster ones more to think about at one go but don’t always hurry the slower ones.
Learning isn’t generative
If lesson activities are too task focused, students don’t think beyond getting them done as the goal. They don’t know if they know the stuff – unless that is explicitly required for the task. The table and graph are finished – but they can’t explain them if they’re not required to.
Make learning generative as often as possible. Books shut – what do you know? How can you self-test to show your knowledge? Make the learning goals absolutely explicit, and dominant over task completion. Ask ‘have you learned it yet?’ – not ‘have you done it yet?’
Too afraid to ask..
If the culture seems to celebrate correctness to the extent that being wrong is awkward, embarrassing – frustrating to the teacher… then students hide it. They create a facade; defences go up. Their uncertainties don’t surface; they leave the room secretly unsure and teacher has no idea.
Make it normal to explore uncertainty. Make the mental shift from ‘does everyone know? to ‘who is still unsure?’ Engage students in generating questions, spotting errors, exploring common mistakes and misconceptions. Congratulate the 7/10 student but then talk through the 3 she got wrong.
Need more time to consolidate
In many lessons, ideas build and build and build; this week’s lessons are built on last week’s lessons. If each idea is fairly shaky, barely understood or remembered, we end up with a very flimsy schema and any responses are highly tentative; any application to new problems feels uncertain; confidence is low, the error rate is high.
Make consolidation a bigger part of the learning process. Nothing new – just review. Give students time to talk through what they’ve learned; to rehearse their thinking; to stock take. Use Pair Share so everyone can do this, focusing discussion around consolidatory task or questions. Set clear expectations and establish sound consolidatory study routines and homework. Make the success rate higher. Revisit things often, ensuring students are spending time to make sense of things.
Need more time to practise
This is different but related to consolidation. Often students simply don’t get the chance to repeat things frequently enough to build any kind of fluency. This is most evident with new vocabulary and language structures – in all subjects. They feel insecure with using formal language or with the recall of basic phrases. They can’t remember basic number facts or procedures.
Make practice a bigger feature of lessons. Increase the number of repetitions; ensure all students are involved in repeated practice with any skill, procedure, vocabulary, language structure… better to practise fewer things to a higher level of fluency than feel insecure with a lot of material. Increase the intensity of practice rather than add more material – until students’ confidence increases.

Of course all of this is easier said than done. The teacher’s view is sometimes a world away from a student’s view.

You won’t necessarily notice these things happening by chance. But there’s a good chance you will if you look out for them explicitly. Structure lessons so the problems listed above don’t happen – as far as you can – and then scan and monitor constantly. Who out there is struggling? Let me find you, let me help you…let me build up your confidence.. let me set you off on the right path…

Related Posts:

The #1 problem/weakness in teaching and how to address it.

Is Everyone Thinking? What are they all thinking about? This is THE Key.

And here’s a video where I explain the ideas in this post:


  1. Hi Tom,

    I was wondering whether there is a lesson plan template for the ‘new’ way of teaching English?

    Thank you very much,

    I look forward to hearing from you,

    Kind regards,

    Elizabeth Kent


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s