Accelerate Learning by Prioritizing Outcomes and Providing Just-in-Time Support

Explore a three-step process that includes identifying priority grade-level standards, determining gaps in prerequisite learning, and providing just-in-time support for unlearned prerequisite skills.

Grades K-12 15 min Resource by:

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the education system for over a year. This has led to concerns about unfinished learning and poor academic performance. As we move into a new school year, we will need to address these concerns. We might even be tempted to spend the first couple months of the school year reviewing, reteaching, filling in gaps, and completing unfinished units. However, this would be a mistake. TNTP’s Learning Acceleration Guide points out, “While well intentioned, this approach often means that students who fell behind never encounter the work of their grade, instead remaining trapped in a cycle of low-quality or below-grade-level work.” In other words, we can’t go back and reteach last year while also expecting our students to move ahead. To continue to grow, students must engage with rigorous content, including current grade-level standards.

Dwelling too much on the past can also amplify inequities among our learners. Research by the U.S. Department of Education confirms that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact “on the achievement of students who were already underserved, including students of color.” Hanover Research came to a similar conclusion, stating, “In particular, low-income, Latinx, and Black students will likely see higher-than-average learning loss due to COVID-19-related school closures.” We cannot let our approach to the new school year deepen these inequities. Instead, we must make sure that all of our students have equal opportunities to advance academically.

To accelerate learning for all students, we must implement a “just-in-time” approach. This means embedding prerequisite skills within the context of new learning and remediating only at the point of need, rather than as a separate, detached learning event. Meg Bowen, in a white paper for Learning Sciences International, describes it this way: “The key to accelerating rather than remediating is determining the critical skills and concepts that students are missing and providing scaffolds that will bridge gaps while teaching the missing skills with surgical precision and efficiency.” We can do this by focusing our limited time on reteaching only the priority concepts that our students need to succeed in their current, grade-level learning experience. We don’t have time to fill every gap from the past year, but we can strategically build bridges to this year’s new learning with a just-in-time approach.

Three steps can help us condense our standards, maximize efficiency, and ultimately, accelerate learning.

  1. Identify priority grade-level standards.
  2. Determine gaps in prerequisite learning.
  3. Provide just-in-time support for unlearned prerequisite skills.

There are two main parts to this task. The first is to engage students in grade-level standards. In Stephanie Hirsh’s article for Carnegie Corporation of New York, How to Accelerate Learning for All Students in the 2020–21 School Year, Ryan Colon—director of math content design for Teaching Lab—is quoted as saying, “Denying students access to grade-level content is counterproductive and further widens achievement gaps.” If we spend the first month or two of the school year reviewing and reteaching concepts from the previous school year, we are essentially denying students access to grade-level content during that time period, and they will not be moving forward. If we want to accelerate learning, we need to engage our students primarily in their current grade-level content.

The second part of this task focuses on the word “priority.” As we move forward with new grade-level content, we will almost certainly encounter gaps in necessary prerequisite skills. Since we want our students to be successful, we’ll need to bridge these gaps. This will take time, and our time is limited. Therefore, we will likely not be able to teach everything in our curriculum, and we will need to prioritize which standards we will teach. Heather Clayton, author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, suggests three key criteria for determining which standards are priority standards.

  • Endurance: The standard represents learning that goes beyond one course or grade level and is representative of a concept or skill that is important in life.
  • Leverage: The standard represents learning that is applied both within the content area and in other content areas.
  • Readiness: The standard represents learning that is essential for success in a new unit, course of study, or grade level.

Each teacher or school will need to determine what process to use for identifying priority standards. We could choose to review the standards as a grade-level team or department, or we might collaborate with a district curriculum specialist. During this process, we might decide to create a new document that lists standards in order of importance, or we could color-code our scope and sequence based on priority level. However we decide to do this, the key is to determine which standards are “must do” and which are “nice to do.” Once that is done, we can prioritize our teaching and learning time on the “must dos,” while working in the “nice to dos” where we have time.

Once our team has identified the priority standards, we will need to determine which standards from prior years are prerequisites for success with the new standards. If we have a scope and sequence document, we can look at the skills listed in previous steps of the sequencing. If we do not have such a document, we can put the standards from the previous year next to our new ones and determine which are necessary to complete the new learning.

Then, we will need to determine if our students have gaps in these prerequisite skill areas. There are a number of approaches that we can take to gather this information. A few options to consider are listed below.

  • Talk to teachers who taught the previous grade to get their insights.
  • Review standardized test data.
  • Administer a pretest.
  • Observe students as they are working on new, grade-level tasks.
  • Ask students to share where they feel they need support.

However this is approached, we will need to determine which students need support and where they need help. We will not have time to fill all the gaps from last year, but we will need to find adequate time to support these key foundational skills if we want students to be successful moving forward.

Finally, we must provide the support necessary for our students to be successful. To maximize both efficiency and effectiveness, this is best done at the point of need, or “just-in-time.” Rather than reviewing extensively at the beginning of the school year, we should review or reteach material when prior learning intersects with new learning. This will maximize the relevance for the student and give them an authentic need to master the material. They will also be able to immediately apply it to their new learning, making it more likely that our students will retain what they have learned. As our students experience success, their confidence will be boosted, and the benefits of learning the content will be reinforced. This will increase the potential for accelerating additional learning in the future.

The methods we use to reteach and support our students will vary depending on how many students demonstrate a need. If the entire class missed the content, we might need to teach a full-class mini-lesson, or we could embed that skill directly into the lessons that we are using to teach the new grade-level content. If a few students know the material, we could give those students an enrichment activity, while the rest of the class joins us for a mini-lesson. If only a few students need help with a skill, we could either pull them aside for a short, individualized lesson, or we could assign a computer-based lesson. If we are implementing station rotations, we can use the teacher station for small-group sessions. If we are using playlists, we can build in choices that provide support and relearning opportunities to those who need extra help. However we choose to do this, interventions will be most effective if they are framed in terms of the new learning and facilitated at the time of need.

Use A Working Document

It’s helpful to have some type of document to guide our conversation and planning. This sample worksheet outlines one way to work through the three parts of prioritizing standards, identifying prerequisite skills, and outlining potential supports. To use this document, click “File” and then “Make a copy” to generate an editable version.

Of course, if this worksheet doesn’t work for you or match your learning style, consider working as a team to develop your own working document or planning guide. The goal is to come up with something to help you review, assess, and plan.

In future articles, we’ll explore additional assessment and support strategies that you can use to power this process in your classroom.

An AVID Connection

  • A Word About Scaffolding. Scaffolding involves a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.


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