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Close the gaps in unfinished learning to keep students on track

Educators know that learning builds on prior knowledge and understanding. This is why the standards provide a clear progression of learning goals that flow from one grade to the next, gradually increasing in complexity.   

But what about when your students haven’t yet mastered the standards that your current teaching builds on—whether those standards are from previous grades or just last week? Unless you address their unfinished learning, they’ll fall further behind. On the other hand, you’re already busy; how can you find time to close these gaps?

What is unfinished learning?

What can you do when your students haven’t yet mastered the standards they need in order to learn the new concepts in your lesson plans?

At a recent professional learning event in Colorado, ANet coaches Jessica Martin and Brandi Phillips led a session on unfinished learning. “It’s about re-engaging, not re-teaching,” Jessica explained. “We’re not just giving the same lesson again—we’re finding new ways to help students connect to concepts.”

The session, with 30 elementary school leaders and math teachers in attendance, gave participants tools for addressing unfinished teaching—and a safe space to ask questions.

Just covering each lesson takes up all my time. There aren’t enough days to address old lessons, too.

For many, the biggest challenge was time.

“Our curriculum is demanding,” said a fourth-grade math teacher from a Denver school. “Just covering each lesson takes up all my time. There aren’t enough days to address old lessons, too.”

Around the room, others voiced similar concerns: if exit tickets or assessments revealed unfinished learning, how could teachers make time to revisit concepts without falling behind?

“It feels like we should set aside five days and dedicate them to unfinished learning, right?” Jessica asked. “It seems like the natural approach. And you’re right: there isn’t time for that. 

“Both because of time constraints and to help students understand how content fits together, we need to find ways to embed unfinished learning into new material. To do that, we have to get to the root cause of their misunderstandings and help them make those connections.”

Brandi agreed. “Once you’ve developed a deep understanding of the standards, you’ll be able to fit old and new concepts together in a way that will let you build in re-engagement.”

Classroom application: scaffolding for fourth-grade division. For new standard 4.NBT.B.6, previous learnings are 4.NBT.A.1 and 4.NBT.B.5, as well as a variety of 3rd grade OA standards related to multiplication and division.

Connect the concepts: Use student work to determine areas of unfinished teaching for your class. Target those areas as you introduce new concepts. Students may struggle with a grade level standard in a variety of ways, so it's important to identify the root cause of the unfinished teaching. If modeling is a challenge, revisit simpler modeling problems. If students don't yet grasp the relationship between multiplication and division, weave this concept in as you introduce new material.

Jessica and Brandi worked with the participants to identify links among different third- and fourth-grade math concepts, and how they might re-engage students with old concepts while teaching new ones.

“Linking standards and presenting previous concepts in new ways will help you find time to address unfinished learning without having to set aside hours you don’t have,” said Jessica. “And even more importantly, the more you’re able to weave old and new standards together, the more you’ll help students understand the math on a deeper level.”

Ready to learn more? Here is an approach developed by our team with Student Achievement Partners (SAP) to address students’ unfinished learning in the context of grade-level work.

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