#1 in the Teaching Problem –> Solution Series.
The Problem: How do I deal with knowledge gaps?
This problem has been posed in two categories:
a) Where students are absent: here they may have all the general background knowledge and learning skills needed but just missed parts of the course.
b) Where students have gaps despite being present: here there will be underlying, deeper-seated issues with their learning leading to gaps emerging later.
Generally, solutions rely on students being able to see where their gaps lie and then providing them with the resources and opportunities to apply effort to learning the material where those gaps are located.
Map the content and provide resources:
This is essential. For any unit of work, it should be possible for students to see what they are going to learn in some detail and what knowledge (concepts, vocabulary, facts) are assumed. (And for younger children, for their parents to see equivalent resources). If you can’t communicate the content of the curriculum and students can only access it by being present, then you’re making any catch-up much harder for everyone – so prioritise the mapping and resourcing. This might include text books (yes!), workbooks, home-grown booklets, revision guides, knowledge organisers, specifications, topic summaries, vocabulary sheets, the unit slide deck..
Engage in periodic review and consolidation loops:
Make review and consolidation a routine part of a lesson flow, as a minimum every month. ‘Let’s take stock of where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going’ – surveying key concepts and engaging students in consolidatory practice tasks. Reference the study guides and resources in the process so students can track their own journey through the material – you are training them to develop agency in supporting their own learning. Loop back to the last review so students see connections and can self-evaluate their own progress. For weaker students, consolidation is absolutely essential – give it the time it needs, otherwise you are just leaving them behind.
Focus more on key concepts that regularly spiral back and reappear, rather than every detail:
Identify and reinforce key underlying themes that thread through the curriculum so students make links from topic to topic. They might not always remember every tiny detail but can retain a good overview of the bigger picture. This allows them to back-fill the details later. If you are clear what these bigger ideas and key concepts are, you will do a better job of reinforcing them as you teach. It is also possible for the penny to drop – for the knowledge to click – for some students later than others. If your curriculum spirals back around to these core ideas, explicitly review the previous instance in light of new learning and weave the ideas together so that students can see connections very explicitly.
Plan and provide tiered practice questions with answers:
Wherever possible, give students targeted questions that cover the missed material or identified knowledge gaps. This helps them to check their understanding and get some additional practice. For older students ,set clear expectations that they do this practice in their own time. Provide answers for self-checking. The key is to balance building student agency with teacher support. Often weaker students just need more practice on simpler material – so give it to them rather than seeing them struggle with the newer, more complex material.
Teach self-study-check routines:
Students do not naturally use effective study techniques and, unguided, will tend to just read over missed material without checking their understanding. Build in some teaching of self-study, self-check routines so students learn to evaluate their understanding through loops of rehearsal, retrieval practice and other generative learning processes like summarising, followed by evaluation, checking their work against the study resources or question answers.
Use a buddy system:
In some contexts, for short absences, a very powerful process is to use a buddy system where absent students are supported by a peer who is tasked to bring them up to speed. This can be done during practice phases of lessons or feed into independent study time with associated expectations that students find the time to do it.
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