Summer Series – Understanding Common Learning Challenges

Welcome to our new summer blog series! Each week we’ll bring you insights into various learning challenges students may face. We’ll start with some of the skills that students must master to be successful in school, discuss the neurodevelopmental factors involved, and look at common obstacles that students may encounter on the road to mastery. We’ll also offer practical strategies that you can use to help students who may be struggling, and hope that you will join colleagues in a dialog about these posts.

Remember: You can also sign up to receive an e-mail each time our blog is updated so the summer series is delivered right to your inbox (look for the Email Subscription box to the right).

We hope you enjoy our summer blog series.

Series Post #1: Attention and Determining What’s Relevant

Students are required to absorb and process a great deal of information in school every day. During any given class, students must attend to information that ranges from detailed facts to complex concepts, to people such as teachers and peers, to instructions and assignments, and to managing the materials necessary in the class.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

A student’s processing controls direct how s/he “takes in” of all of this information. The processing controls of attention specifically help students select which information is most important and then use that information as needed. These controls act as a kind of gatekeeper, facilitating the initial understanding of information before storing it in memory.

The processing controls have five roles:

  1. Determining what information is relevant
  2. Determining how deeply to process information
  3. Figuring out the span of attention required for a particular task
  4. Controlling the extent to which incoming information triggers connections to other information
  5. Ensuring that all information, even that which is only minimally interesting, is processed

Let’s take a look at #1 today – determining what information is relevant.

Here are some signs that a student is competent in determining what’s relevant:

The student …

  • focuses well in class without looking around and/or being distracted by background noises
  • determines what information is needed to solve word problems or study for tests
  • detects the significance of information when summarizing, paraphrasing, and underlining

Here are some signs that a student is struggling with determining what’s relevant:

The student …

  • feels overwhelmed in school due to distraction by sights, sounds, smells, or other stimuli
  • is distracted from what is going on in the present while showing a preoccupation with the past or future
  • is socially distracted, focusing too much on peers

For those of you who like to attach terms to concepts, the process of selecting and thinking about which information stands out or is most important is called saliency determination.

Strategies to help students struggling in this area:

  • Help students use color coding as an effective organizing strategy themselves. For example, a routine can be established in class (e.g., green for main idea, red for details in reading; blue for essential information in math word problems, etc.) that students can integrate into their own note-taking.
  • Have students practice deleting unimportant information in written materials, math and science word problems, etc. Allow students to create their own math and science word problems, in which they insert and delete information, examining the difference between necessary and unnecessary information.
  • Stage tasks (break them into smaller steps) to help students focus on the most salient features (e.g., highlight the symbol [+,-] for a particular math calculation before calculating the answer, highlight the most important information in a math story problem).

We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to help students learn how to determine what’s relevant. Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related Links:

More information and strategies about attending to important information

Research on the processing controls

More information about attention

17 thoughts on “Summer Series – Understanding Common Learning Challenges

  1. My area of teaching focuses on receptive and expressive language skills with young children. Often these language skills directly relate to attention and they may present as attention issues but there is a deeper reason for the inattentive behavior. Rather than being unable to attend to a given activity or class discussion my students need the staging and visual cues that are outlined in the strategies mentioned in this first series of suggestions. Presenting material in steps, offering visual cues, recapping material clearly, ensuring that new vocab is introduced and understood and reviewed in a variety of contexts are all vital to deepen understanding, engage the children, and increase their attention. I find it useful to look at inattention in my students as a cue for me to critically think of new strategies and additional approaches that could be used to enhance their learning.

    • Mary,

      I appreciate your input regarding how to work with students with attention challenges. Good strategies. I also think these same strategies should be used at home when given a task. Keeping it consistent at home and school is important. What are your thought?


    • You are absolutely right about strategies for engaging students in order to heighten their understanding. One of the major road blocks I see in the teaching community is that teachers are willing to accept a B average when it comes to this theory. If 80% of the students in a class are doing well with one strategy then the decision to change the teaching style to account for the other 20% and risk disrupting the majority 80% becomes a dilemma. In addition, the strict teaching guidelines and standardization makes deviating from a set plan even more challenging. Teachers and their administration need to account for the 20% in their curriculum by building in alternative ideas into their annual, monthly, and weekly planning. By doing this, when the a need comes to address those who are having attention issues the teacher is not scrambling to adjust there teaching plan and can run multiple plans/strategies in parallel on the same annual time line. It’s just a matter of choosing which plan fits to accommodate everyone at any given time. You have to be motivated to motivate.

  2. I find the issue of distinguishing between relevant information and the irrelevant a very interesting subject. This same issue can be seen in processes of higher level learning and social competancy as well.

    One of the influential theories in this field is that of “attributions”. For example, a student considers either consciously or unconsciously whether his grade on a test is due to his own knowledge or the teacher or the weather in the classroom. Certainly, each of these factors contributes to a student’s success on a test, but the student must distinguish between the main influence and less influential factors.

    I think in this field also we must learn methods to to teach students to understand that their own knowledge or learning methods are the “main idea” and things that aren’t in their control, such as the test the teacher gives or the weather in the classroom are “side information” that must be ignored as much as possible.

  3. hi!

    i use colour coding a lot. “RED is the HW; BLUE is the CW. ignore black.”

    breaking content into smaller chunks also helps a lot. focusses attention.

    both work very well with attention deficit children.

  4. I have found that asking students to state the “goal” of an algebra or math word problem after they have read it is a good focusing tool. After they have assessed what the problem is actually asking I have them write the goal (ie., x= ___,) and then they go back and eliminate unnecessary information, restate relevant information (what do they know) and determine what operations are relevant to eventually achieving the goal.

    I also spend a lot of time reviewing the symbols and words (vocabulary) in terms of recognizing them as application and operational cues using visual and hands on supports. Students often elect to make steps-cards (index cards with sequential steps listed) as reference tools.

    I try to find “real life” applications when possible so students will begin to understand that math is not just something they need to know to pass a test.

  5. There seems to be such a “disconnect” between students and their responisbility for learning from what some teachers indicate they see in classrooms. In addition to the organizational strategies, I especially like the Strategies here dealing with how to “connect” students to delay gratification in order to build good work habits-such a valuable tool for school and life.
    This will serve students well throughout their lives.

    • Nanette,
      I totally agree with your statement. I wish I had that connect (I use this word a lot – a “disconnect” between my daughter and learning.

  6. All of the thinking and processing screams out to be organized and charted. Colors are key to helping the visual learners, and repetition or sing song like tunes can help those who need more help with auditory memory. This type of framework is the structure which guides the learning and files the information as it hits the memory to be stored. What works well for two learners can not touch another. Sharing successes as teachers, is a great way to penetrate the voids!

  7. I really enjoyed reading all the above comments. Can someone share or refer me to information about simulated exercises where students bring what they are learning to life?

    I would also like to learn more about the color coding to use at home with my son who is a strong kinesthetic/tactile learner.Thanks

  8. Excellent ideas to help students be more attentive. The color coding gives the visual reminder that so many children need. It also requires them to take time to “sort” the information they are receiving to help make meaning from it. Color gets the brains attention, as research has revealed. It also helps adults. It’s hard to ignore color. It grabs our attention!

  9. What a great and simple way to help me keep key concepts in the front of my brain. Easy review and easy to forward to colleagues. Thank you.

  10. None of the above comments relate to older students (middle school). My students have used colored tabs for marking texts, taken notes using the telegram method (10 words or less), and continued with using colors. Some take notes in pictures, rather than writing, as visual speaks to them.

  11. Not only are color coding, note taking, and chunking information important and effective stratgies for helping students determine what is important, teachers can help students tremendously by explicitly telling students when something is important and relevant. We teachers deluge students with oral language during the school day. We need to make sure we are letting students know when the most important/most significant information is coming their way. Giving them the “heads up” can really help. Asking students to recap imortant information for the whole class is a great strategy as well. It always helps students when they hear the same information via a totally different voice. Just the sound of a new voice can help focus attention and stimulate more awareness.

  12. Replying to Lisa, who asked how to implement the color coding to help her son, I site this method as one way. In determining the important (key) words in a question, I have my kids highlight those that they will use to answer it. Not only does this help them with filtering the unimportant details/words, but it encourages them to look at those facts/examples that tie to meaning and comprehension. It also helps them in their spelling. Last, have them reread their own share and to check their sentences. this brings in the auditory and helps with that hard part of writing… the edit!

  13. I’ve been teaching first grade for 25 years and love the challenge of bringing AKOM into my classroom. The posting on attention and temporal ordering brought to mind a technique that I’ve been using for a couple of years.

    After teaching a lesson I go through these steps before the
    children start their activities:

    *I have multiple students tell me what they’ll be doing
    to start the activity. Making sure to call on children
    with different learning styles.

    *Then I have the class sit quietly while I count down before they can start the activity reminding them that this is their planning time.

    *I simply stop counting if there are students not following directions and resume when they realize what they’re supposed to be doing.

    *I always make the point that my most important job is to help them become “expert learners”.

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