Saving time: Tackling misconceptions

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Time is our most precious commodity and it is often in short supply. In this five-part series, Adam Riches looks at how we can change common practices to help save time and improve teaching and learning. Part one focuses on checking student understanding

Time is something that teachers are notoriously hard-pressed for. Besides preparing for lessons, one of the most time-consuming tasks that teachers face is checking whether students have understood what they have learnt.

That may take the form of marking, but even just reading students’ responses can eat into PPA or even your own non-directed time – something none of us need.

Creating time is an impossibility, but what we can do is ensure that we are spending our time in lessons as effectively as possible to help reduce the burden of checking for understanding when we are outside of lessons.

Interestingly, Irons (2008) has highlighted the shortcomings of delayed feedback, drawing into question how traditional marking practices may be ineffectual for both students and teacher alike.

Addressing misconceptions right there and then in lessons has a number of benefits for the students as well as saving time for teachers.

For students, the best time to get feedback on what they are doing is while they are doing it.
Zhang et al (2016) looked into the effectiveness of immediate feedback and their results revealed that learners’ memories performed significantly better when immediate feedback had been given.

It is no secret that I am all about live marking and addressing misconceptions and I have written about this before in SecEd (Riches, 2017).

The thing is, you need to be able to track the misconceptions before you can intervene, and sometimes taking some time to watch a task unfold can lead to real insight into how much students have learned.

The power of movement

In the classroom, if you are static, you have a limited field of vision to understand how well your students are getting on and what they are getting stuck on. During tasks, no matter how small, get up, get around, circulate and check what the class is doing – and if needs-be react to the learning.

By moving around the classroom, you get a much better picture of what is happening. I am not saying move for the sake of it – quite the opposite, make your movements intentional. Plan your routes dependent on need. If you know a student struggles with extended writing, ensure they are your first port of call for that type of task.

Avoid becoming barricaded behind your desk, it only serves to detach you from the class and the reality of what is happening. If you can, get rid of it all together (personal preference) as it will give you more space to circulate.

Not only does effective and efficient circulation allow for you to check understanding, it is a helpful behaviour management technique as it gives you the scope to keep students on task and stop them from becoming disengaged.

Planning what to look for

Circulation and movement is all good and well, but unless your movement serves a purpose, you will be doing little more than adding to your daily step count and adding to the students’ extraneous load.

While you are moving around the class, you need to know what you are looking for. Are you looking for errors or misconceptions? How do you know what might come up? Do you have any success criteria for the whole class? Considering these types of questions before you circulate will make your journey around the classroom more purposeful.

Going into a lesson with a preconceived idea of which misconceptions might occur is a good way to ensure that students get the support they need to circumnavigate potential learning hurdles.

This approach also serves as a great subject knowledge-check for you as the teacher – do you know what they might get stuck on? By just considering what the misconceptions might be, you will be able to check for understanding more efficiently.

Making a record

Once you have highlighted a misconception (either from teaching or from the learning) it is a good idea to note it down. You might do this each week, each lesson, each unit, but making a simple record can help you to identify patterns in learning (and misconceptions) and so help you to address them more and more effectively.

And no, you will not remember – just because we as teachers understand cognitive load theory, does not make us exempt from the impact of extraneous load (and in the classroom we have a lot of that).

So it might sound rudimentary, but noting down the misconceptions from each lesson is a good way to inform your checking for understanding the next time you teach that topic and perhaps to eradicate the misconception altogether. By noting down the misconceptions, you are able to track how these change across a unit of work or how effective your attempts to address the misconception have been.

Using what you find

Effectively tracking misconceptions in class ultimately saves you the time that you would normally spend trawling through books outside of lessons (and outside of the context of the teaching).

What you do not want to fall into the trap of doing is identifying misconceptions, noting them down and then doing nothing about it and going through the students’ books anyway!

Highlighting misconceptions means you are empowered to intervene before the misconception becomes embedded, saving you further teaching time. So how might you intervene? You could:

  • Reteach a section of the lesson to consolidate learning.
  • Give live feedback to the class to help them overcome the misconception.
  • Put interventions in place for those individuals who are struggling – more modelling, scaffolding, etc.
  • Adapt your approaches for the next phase of learning.
  • Provide whole-class feedback.

These are just a few things that will allow you to intervene instantly and have a larger impact on learning and progress.

Conclusion

Tracking misconceptions in class can have a huge impact on your workload and all you are really doing is making the most of the time when you are already teaching – it makes sense.

Have a think about what you are doing next time your students are working and consider if you could save yourself some time by checking for understanding.

  • Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a Specialist Leader in Education and author the upcoming book, Teach Smarter. Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. This series will continue in February. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2DhTAJu

Further information & resources

  • Enhancing Learning Through Formative Assessment, Irons, Routledge, 2008.
  • The effects of feedback on memory strategies of younger and older adults, Zhang et al, PLoS ONE, December 2016: http://bit.ly/38kDev3
  • In-class marking and feedback, Riches, SecEd, November 2017: http://bit.ly/2DtkzlE


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