How to Really Help Students Learn

​Diane Washenberger, Salem City Schools' Director of Elementary Instruction, describes essential strategies for differentiated instruction- and the pitfalls that sometimes accompany them.

​How to Really Help Students Learn:  Avoiding the Pitfalls

Ask teachers to tell you about their classrooms and you are likely to hear common elements in their comments. You will likely hear that the students are quite diverse based on demographic variables, that there is a wide range of abilities among the students, and that some students face learning difficulties or personal challenges that may potentially  interfere with their achievement. And teachers will share their concern over high-stakes accountability measures for their students as well as many strategies and approaches they are using to support their students and to help them be successful academically.

This post provides ways to really help students with their learning while avoiding well-meaning approaches (pitfalls) that are sometimes used but may actually be less effective. Here are five tips that teachers can follow to help their students learn.

1. Find out what they know and start there.

Teachers have a prescribed set of instructional objectives and goals for the courses they teach – i.e. the “content standards”. The problem is that our students are different from each other so their background knowledge, their interest, their enthusiasm, and so on for the content standards will vary. Some students may already meet some of the content standards or need very little instruction to meet them. Other students may lack key knowledge and skills that are prerequisites for the content standards. And, of course, all of these students are in a classroom together. 

The potential pitfall in this scenario is trying to teach all of the students using the same content and strategies. That just does not work! The students who already meet the content standards or who meet them with very little instruction need learning activities that take them deeper into the content. The students who are lacking the prerequisite knowledge and skills need learning activities designed to help them accelerate to the content standards. And then there are probably a few students for whom the content standards are right on target so they will engage in yet a different set of learning activities.  

Out of necessity and respect for the students in a classroom, teachers have to differentiate their instruction, often using small group structures to pull students for focused learning on specific content goals. In other words, teachers have to find out what their students know as individuals about the learning goal and start there for each student.

2. Keep them close!

Keeping students close means several different things. First the arrangement of the classroom and the layout for various activities needs to be developed in a thoughtful manner. When the teacher is working with a small group or one-on-one, other students need to be engaged in learning activities that are easily monitored by the teacher. Of course the teacher will also want to have rules and guidelines established for students about asking for assistance and about interrupting when the teacher is with other students.

Keeping students close also means that the teacher knows which students need close proximity to an adult as a component of the classroom management plan. Some students need to feel the presence of an adult nearby to help them stay on task and productive.

There are a couple of pitfalls related to keeping students close. The most obvious is using the same monitoring guidelines for all students instead of adjusting proximity, frequency, etc. to meet the needs of individuals. Another pitfall is the lack of a clear plan for the location and classroom arrangement for specific activities. 

A third potential pitfall involves providing support for students. For struggling students keeping them close means that the teacher makes it a point to plan for more time working with them. It means that, while other students are engaged in learning activities in which they can self-monitor or, when another adult is present in the room, the other adult can monitor, the teacher has quality time to work with the struggling students. Sometimes a teacher will fall into the trap of assigning a support staff person to help a struggling student when that student really needs more time from the expert in the classroom, i.e. the classroom teacher. And this leads to our next tip!

3.  Use Instructional Support Wisely

If a teacher is fortunate enough to have assistance from another adult, perhaps an instructional assistant or a volunteer, that support needs to be used wisely.  That means that the teacher and the instructional assistant communicate about the learning goals and develop a deliberate plan on how the instructional assistant helps students in the classroom. 

From the previous tip we know that some students will be able to complete learning activities with greater ease and more autonomy. Other students need more assistance with their learning. As a rule of thumb, it should be the teacher who provides that assistance, not the instructional assistant. Why? Because the teacher is the one who is employed to teach, who has the training and the background to assess student learning, to prescribe and implement alternative learning strategies, and to monitor the student learning for future instructional planning. 

Using instructional support wisely means that the teacher makes it a priority to provide support to struggling learners in the classroom and assigns an instructional assistant to facilitate other learning activities in the classroom. 

So when would an instructional assistant work with a struggling learner? The guidelines are the same for an instructional assistant working with any student – at times when the student needs minimal monitoring or assistance to complete a task because the student already has the content or prerequisite skills to be successful without additional direct instruction.

4. Plan and Provide for Consistency

Sometimes our struggling students end up working with several teachers – either because teachers are departmentalizing at the grade level to teach different content areas or because the student is getting supplemental instruction from a specialist such as a reading teacher, a special education teacher, or a Title I teacher. Regardless of the reason that a student is working with more than one teacher, it is absolutely essential that instruction be planned for consistency. The teacher and the specialist(s) need to communicate and establish plans that focus on how each of them will contribute instruction for the student that progresses the student towards agreed-upon learning objectives and goals. The work of the teachers should be consistent and cohesive with the ultimate long-range goal of accelerating the learning for the student in order to get the student from struggling to thriving!

When elementary teachers departmentalize , there must be mutual planning and communication about students. First, there are common cognitive strategies that teachers develop in all content areas. They are: making connections; asking questions; visualizing; inferring and predicting; determining importance; synthesizing; and metacognitive monitoring.  Grade level teachers need to articulate how each teacher and each content area will develop those strategies consistently for students as well as how reading, writing, and oral language are included within each content area. The pitfall of departmentalization is when it becomes compartmentalization!

5. Ask for Help

The teacher is as much of a learner as the student is. All teachers encounter challenges in their work, which require the teacher to investigate instructional strategies, to probe into what the student knows and what interests the student, and to construct new ways to approach learning objectives and goals. 

There are many resources available to a teacher for help in working with struggling students. First there are the teacher’s colleagues who can share from their past experiences. Then there are the specialists in the school - often a reading specialist, special education teachers, perhaps a Title I teacher, principals and assistant principals, to name a few. Also support personnel at the division level have expertise to share. And the resources available online through websites, blogs, and social media can be invaluable. The only caution when using social media (or any other resource for that matter) is a reminder that confidentiality is of utmost importance when planning ways to help an individual struggling student.


Teaching is both a challenging and a rewarding profession. There is no “cookbook” with a “recipe” for how to help all students be successful learners but there are research-based strategies, techniques, and procedures that facilitate learning. The first step is to implement these, allowing for flexibility and adaptability based on the needs of the students and the content area. Probably the most important key for successful teaching and learning is for the teacher to recognize that the teacher is always learning – from colleagues, from the latest research, from the children he or she teaches, etc. And the added benefit to this is that the teacher becomes the model of a learner for the students!