Can you teach this?

This semester, for the first time ever, all of my classes are honors or AP classes.  For the most part, the students are bright, engaged, and concerned about doing well.  But I have discovered that many of these high-end learners have weak study skills.

When I asked how many of them take notes, the students all looked at each other, confused, and most of them tentatively raised their hands.  I clarified.

“I mean, either during class, or when you are reading your textbook at home—either one.”

The hands stayed up, but no one looked very comfortable.  So I tried a different question.

“How many of you feel really awkward taking notes, because you have no idea what you are supposed to be writing down and why?”

I had touched the heart of the matter. Every hand in the class shot up, and everyone started talking.

About two thirds of the students claim to take notes, but apparently not one of them does so with a clear, internal goal in mind.  These are kids who are about to go to college, where I fervently hope they will step outside their intellectual comfort zones, struggle, and need to take and use good notes.  But most of these same kids have never had to do that before. They are bright, quick learners, and all through their school careers, they have grasped things faster than their classmates.  They have never needed to take notes, or study, or break tasks down into smaller pieces, or seek extra help on anything. They know they are supposed to develop study skills, and many of them are poking about, trying different techniques in a meandering, haphazard, and completely tentative way.

In short, their executive functioning is underdeveloped.  At least I think that’s the problem; I’m not a psychologist, and since I came to teaching on a non-traditional path, I didn’t even take a child psychology class in college.  Everything I know about executive function I have acquired obliquely, through discussions in faculty meetings and special-ed plan reviews, and in blogs I have read while worrying about my own two kids.  But I went over to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child to see what they had to say.  Here’s the first paragraph on their  “Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation” page:

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

This seems to me to be the issue. At our school, we spend a great deal of time talking about executive function in our students with learning disabilities or behavioral issues, but I practically NEVER address it explicitly for the highest-end learners.  Oh, I tell them they should do their homework, or take notes, or study for a test, but those directions are usually not very effective, and I don’t really address the problem of building up executive function as a whole.  So that’s my goal this year in AP Statistics. I have several strategies, but the one I’m most excited about is making the students help teach the class.

Every day I assign reading in our textbook (Stats, Modeling the World, by Bock, Velleman and De Veaux).  In past years, I think the students have mostly done the reading, if by “doing the reading” I mean “sitting with the book open, and passing their eyes over the words on the white parts of the page.”  Many of them skip all the special boxes, callouts and visual cues that the textbook writers helpfully inserted. It’s sad, because in this book those marginal bits are important, well-structured, and often very funny.  But the students have been trained by years of really poor textbooks with irrelevant pictures and cutesy mnemonics, and they “know” that most of the stuff in the book can be safely ignored.  They grant the marginal boxes about as much attention as they give to ads on a website.  They skim the main text, and then they come to class, ready for me to “teach them” what they have just read.

So how do I get them to read the book skillfully, teach themselves as much as they can, and come to class ready to pump each other (and me) for the information they still need? Here’s my plan:

At the beginning of class (an 80-minute block), I will randomly pick two students by cluster sampling, to present a ten-minute lesson on the previous night’s reading.  Once I announce the pair, they will have ten minutes to review their notes and put together an organized presentation with the following three main parts: Key new concepts, connection to previous material, and points of confusion.  Everyone in the class who is NOT presenting will have those ten minutes to review their own notes,  formulate questions, predict points of confusion, and prepare to be helpful.  I’m trying to maintain the zen practice of “don’t know mind” about how this will play out in class, but I’m struggling; I am very attached to the beautiful script in my head. With a meaningful reason to read and take notes, students will be prepared and engaged, and the entire class will attain instant enlightenment.  Right?

Of course the universe is under no obligation to follow my script. I’d like to start with a good, structured foundation, and of course be ready to adjust as it plays out in the classroom. Can any of you out there help me anticipate potential problems and avoid them? Does anyone see a wonderful opportunity for student learning that I may be missing because of the structure of this plan?  If so, please leave advice in the comments section below.



2 thoughts on “Can you teach this?

  1. Dawn, this sounds like a great idea. E/LA teachers in your very building have been working to get their students to read fiction/informational “books” (vs. text books) with that kind of care and observation, and I think your idea of assigning teams would be great–challenge, practice, and useful info all at once. You might also consider doing a “think aloud” about one page of the reading as you do it–what you notice and note, what you would write down. I wonder if these same students are as passive in their English reading or if they have those skills but separate them in certain disciplines. Now: here’s an awesome faculty meeting: you model that activity, I show how I get my kids to close read, another teacher from a different discipline does the same. WOW!


  2. There are three things I wish to share with you. You may already be aware or practicing these principles and your student’s population is unknown to me, so please take with a grain of salt. It’s just what I’ve got.

    One of the most important takeaways from Eric Mazur is (and I’m paraphrasing, as I have sort of adapted this as my own belief:) nothing you want to teach you students, no matter how important, will impact them as much if it isn’t assessed. In this case, if you want students to learn executive function, you need criteria upon which students can recognize when they are successful and it must be reflected in their grade.

    Secondly, that success has to be achievable. If a student gets it wrong the first time, they need to be able to try again. Furthermore, the subsequent attempts need to be valuable. For example, for a presentation, I might include an ‘attempt’ category, where the first attempt is presented in class and if the student or group does not meet satisfactory expectations, subsequent attempts are taken outside of class and cost one less point, but only that category.

    Third, structure the presentations or whatever it is you want students to do. If it is as foreign to them as you made it sound, then they have no idea what you are actually expecting. Without structure, you’ll end up with what they think you are expecting and it may be a vastly different animal.

    Finally, if you would like some practical examples of what I am describing, read my blog post “The Assessment That Changed How I Teach” or for structure, browse the assignment page of a major class project that was a little bit out of my students comfort zone.

    Blog Post:

    Class Project

    … and if you want any more ideas, hit me up on Twitter because I really like what you are doing and I would love to see this go amazingly welll.


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