Posted in Challenges, Education, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

How Can I Help Students Effectively Comprehend New STEM Concepts?

Each new academic year provides me with a new set of challenges and rewards.  I learn new things, try new teaching methods, meet new students, help support challenging students, and face difficult situations.  Each new year is unique and different because of this.  It’s like opening a new present every year.  Sometimes what I thought was an ugly sweater from Aunt Judy in October, turns out to be that amazing new technology device I’ve been pining over for months.  Forrest Gump’s mom had it right all along, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.”

In STEM class last week, I introduced the concept of air masses and how they are formed.  I began the lesson by having the students watch a short tutorial video that used pictures, moving images, audio, and diagrams to explain the concept of air masses and the different types.  It was very detailed and engaging.  I then asked the students comprehension questions regarding the big ideas from the video.  What is an air mass?  How do air masses form?  What are the different types of air masses?  This then lead into a discussion on the causes of weather on earth.  I used diagrams, a lab experiment, and oral discussion to explain the concepts involved.  I periodically stopped to review the big ideas throughout the lesson.  I wrote notes and details on the whiteboard and had student volunteers explain the concepts covered.  At the close of the lesson, the students began drawing a diagram showing and explaining how air masses are formed on Earth.  I detailed what their diagram needed to include and reviewed the concepts involved one final time.  They then completed their diagram for homework.  Knowing that not every student would be able to master this objective or demonstrate his knowledge of the concepts on the first assessment attempt, I then reviewed the major concepts at the start of class the next day and informed the boys that we would have a formal written assessment in class on Monday.  The students all seemed to know what was expected of them.  Today, the students completed the written assessment regarding how air masses are formed.  I met with most students as they completed their assessment and explained any ideas they struggled with.  After every student had completed the assessment, we then reviewed how air masses are formed one final time.  This seemed to help almost every student.  Even my ELL students demonstrated proficiency regarding the graded objective.  I felt as though I had hit every learning modality throughout the multi-day lesson in order to meet the needs of each and every student, except for one.

One student seemed to be unable to comprehend or learn the new ideas over the course of the three days we explored the new material.  His diagram showed only a map of the various air masses and nothing more.  He didn’t begin to explain how air masses form.  Then, today during the written assessment, as soon as I handed out the lined paper, he said, “I don’t know anything about this.  I just don’t remember.”  He wasn’t being defiant or argumentative.  I think he genuinely didn’t recall anything discussed from previous days.  I told him to document what he did know and understand regarding the formation of air masses.  This was very little and he finished the task within two minutes.  I then took the opportunity to review the concepts with him one-on-one while the other students feverishly completed the assessment by writing copious amounts of information on their papers.  I drew new diagrams to explain how Earth is unevenly heated by the sun and creates convection currents in the atmosphere, which then brings about air masses and wind.  I used different words to detail the concepts in new ways.  I then gave him a chance to revise his written assessment based on this new knowledge.  While, he wrote a bit more on his paper, he still seemed foggy on the big idea.  How do air masses form?

So, now what?  How do I help him master these concepts?  Does it matter if he can’t explain how air masses form?  Can’t he just look up the answer online?  What if this incident is a symptom of a greater learning problem?  Is it a processing issue?  Is it a motivation issue?  Why does he seem to be unable to demonstrate proficiency regarding this skill?  What else could I or should I be doing to help this student?  I’ve met with him one-on-one twice already in four days and that hasn’t seemed to help.  Am I missing something?  I’ve tried assessing him orally, in artistic form, and in written form.  Tonight, during evening study hall, I am going to meet with him again to check on his learning progress.  Perhaps there is a processing issue involved.  While he has been challenged by new concepts earlier in the year, nothing compares to the struggles he is currently facing.  Perhaps I need to have a peer explain the concepts to him in student-friendly language.  Maybe that will help?  He also really likes to sing and rap and so maybe I could find a rap explaining the formation of air masses.  Maybe this method will help him comprehend the material more effectively.  I really want to help him feel success in this area but am feeling a little stuck.  I’m hopeful that with more reflection and time over the next couple of days, I will figure out some way to help him understand the concepts.  Maybe he just needs time to let it all sink in.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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