Tackling unfinished learning in mathematics
As schools across the nation resume in person or virtually, unfinished learning and achievement gaps—especially in mathematics—must be addressed
The 2019–20 school year was unlike any other, and there is uncertainty about what teaching and learning will look like this fall. School closures this spring caused students to miss important learning opportunities in mathematics, and educational inequities and unfinished learning have become more pronounced.
While educators are eager to provide a welcoming, coherent instructional experience when students return to school, there are concerns about the impact of unfinished learning. One reaction may be to jam in more topics and cover both the grade-level content and what may have been missed the previous year. Another may be to assess students upon arrival and immediately try to fill in the unfinished learning or place students in remediation.
As well-intentioned as these ideas may be, they can have a negative impact on students mentally, emotionally, and mathematically. We know that speeding up instruction to cover more topics does not lead to lasting understanding. We also know the importance of spending as much time as possible accessing grade-level mathematics. In addition, we know that student engagement is an important condition for learning mathematics — and in the COVID-19 era, it is more important than ever. It is the key to drawing in students who are anxious about unfinished learning.
Because most teachers will not have added days for additional lessons in 2020–21, decisions must be made about how to prioritize the major work of each grade and how to support students in accessing that content.
Here are three suggestions to help strike the right balance this fall.
1. Incorporate prior grade-level knowledge and skills, when necessary, to support access to current grade-level content.
Integrating prior grade-level content into the current grade level is challenging work. It includes supporting students’ well-being and emotional needs while maintaining the delicate balance of adding more things to teach and minding the number of days in the school year.
In mathematics, the coherence of the standards helps. The standards tell the story of mathematics, following a progression of concepts and procedures across grade levels. If teachers know the story, then they know how to work with students who have missed part of it. They don’t have to go back to where the story left off and go through it again. Instead, teachers can identify prior grade-level dependencies for each standards-based curriculum unit and, if needed, add lessons just in time in a coherent manner throughout the year. To balance the number of school days, they can analyze each unit to identify lessons that can be adjusted, combined, or skipped.
2. Use assessments meaningfully, yet sparingly, to make instructional decisions.
Assessment is important, but deciding how and how much to assess is a struggle, even in a typical school year. It would be inefficient to teach everything that was missed in the previous grade before starting grade-level work. Similarly, if too much time is spent administering formal assessments, valuable instructional time is lost. Often, it makes more sense to wait until students are approaching a unit to visit the material they will need to understand those concepts.
One advantage of waiting to introduce ideas from missed learning is a greater opportunity to get to know students and their needs — without over-testing. Embedded formative assessments and a focus on student-generated solutions should illuminate what students need. For example, a unit diagnostic can check student readiness and provide information about where it is necessary to weave in material from earlier units or courses. That way, any remediation can serve in accessing the grade-level topic.
When giving students just-in-time content, it can also be helpful to insert small formative assessments along the way. This allows teachers to build on what students know while moving forward with grade-level material. For example, using a formative mini-assessment — one or two math problems after a lesson as a cool-down — teachers can check in and support students’ learning toward the grade-level standards, and determine if they will be able to engage in the beginning lessons of the next section in a unit.
3. Integrate practice and review into the teaching of current grade-level content.
After a formative assessment or mini-assessment, there may be students who need extra practice with the knowledge and skills covered in the previous unit or previous grade level. Yet, students will never get through their current material if they are continually stopping to relearn prior material. To keep the learning going, teachers can leverage the coherence of the standards to align and integrate targeted practice into the current grade-level unit. When teachers and students are using a mathematics curriculum that develops concepts and representations coherently along a mathematical progression — again, like telling a story — it becomes much easier to integrate practice from prior units or grade levels directly into current lessons, without disrupting them.
To support students in feeling confident and successful after they have experienced so much recent change and uncertainty, it is critical to ensure they are building on their current understandings as they progress through grade-level content — and in a way that is inviting and safe. Without student engagement in the learning experience, no amount of testing or technology will help.