Provide support for student learning

08/21/2013  |  With Barbara Blackburn, Ph.D.

In order for students to learn at more rigorous levels, we must provide appropriate support for student learning. A commonly held myth is that students should be able to do rigorous work on their own. However, if rigorous work is working at a new level of challenge above their current learning, it’s unfair to assume they can simply understand without any instruction or scaffolding.

Scaffolding and Support

Scaffolding and support should be built into every lesson, through strategies such as graphic organizers, modeling, think-alouds, and visual cues. But even with standard scaffolding, some students need additional help.

Providing appropriate extra help to students can be a challenge. First, there is pressure to make sure everyone moves through the curriculum in time for the test. Then, there are the times when you teach and teach and teach and just don’t understand why your students don’t understand. But that’s the exact moment when they need you to keep going. If you are frustrated, imagine how they feel! There are seven key characteristics of effective support.


First, effective support is structured. There is a plan to monitor student learning and provide extra help. Often, I’m in schools with extensive programs for tutoring, but all of the programs are optional. The students who need the most help don’t always volunteer for assistance. Sometimes, they don’t even realize that they need help.

If you build opportunities to assess student understanding at key points, you will be better able to provide immediate help to students. You can do this formally with a test, but that may be too late. Create ways to assess your students’ understanding within each lesson or at the end of each class so that you can immediately address any concerns.

Exit slips allow you to quickly see what your students have learned and what they are confused about. They are also a great tool to give you information to plan your next lesson. Students answer two to three questions such as, “What did I Learn Today?” or “What is One Question I Have.” You can ask students to do this anonymously, or they can put their names on the slips so that you can work with individual students. Just be sure to have a plan. The structure will help you help them learn.

Understanding Is the Result

Effective support always results in a deeper understanding of the content rather than memorization of facts. As I learned, if a student does not understand decimals, more practice doesn’t help. We need to find different ways to present the information so that students internalize what they are learning.

There are a variety of ways to teach, including using visuals, hands-on activities and technology. Ideally, your lesson should include enough options for each student to learn in his or her own way. But if some students don’t learn, then it’s up to you to find a new way to help them understand.

Sometimes the best help comes from another student rather than the teacher. When one student explains a concept to another student, it comes from a different perspective and is often more relevant to the student.


Good support is also personalized to each student’s needs. In order to customize your support, you’ll need to learn as much as possible about every student. To connect with your students, it’s important to learn about their interests, learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses. You can do this by asking them to write biographies, bringing in a “culture box” of items from their lives, or simply talking to them to learn more about them. This allows you to personalize learning for each student.


It’s also critical to provide support in a positive manner. Recently, one of my new graduate students was struggling with a research paper. She was returning to school after an extended break, and she found that doing research electronically was a new skill for her. After class she made an appointment to meet with me individually for help. When she left my office I thought everything was fine. One week later she called me at home, quite upset. It seems that she did understand what to do, but when she tried to find research on her own she struggled. She hesitated to call me because I’d already shown her how to use the online resources twice — once in class, once individually. We met the next day, and after we worked together, she immediately went to the computer lab to try it again on her own, this time with success. She was grateful and commented that I didn’t seem to mind helping her again. Of course not. But if I had grumbled or commented that she just wasn’t paying attention, she would not have been as successful. Positive, ongoing encouragement of your students is a critical part of your role as a teacher.

Options Within Lessons and Outside Class Time

Effective support must be available during your lesson and outside class time. The most effective help comes during the lesson, when confusion is fresh in your students’ minds. You don’t want them to go home and practice something incorrectly. That is where sharing activities are helpful, they help assess and ensure understanding at multiple points during the lesson. But for those students who need extra one-on-one time, provide opportunities to meet with you after class. It is also common for a student to understand the material in class, but 24 hours later, he or she is confused. So it’s important to be available to students at regular times. For example, the teachers at Willard Middle School in Ohio post their office hours on their doors so that parents and students know when they can meet with teachers.


In one of my workshops, a teacher said, “I know how to provide help for my students. Help means extra practice. The more help they need, the more homework I assign.” That is not effective support. Repetition only works for memorizing isolated facts, and even that only provides short-term learning. Repetition rarely provides long-term learning. It’s harder to “unteach” bad learning than it is to invest extra time in making sure that your students truly understand. If I don’t understand something, practicing it over and over again isn’t going to help. Hearing it again, told to me in the same words, only slower or louder, isn’t going to help. Find ways to reteach information through learning centers or other hands-on activities.


Finally, effective support must be provided in a timely manner. If you wait two weeks after students ask for your help, you’ve lost your opportunity. Confusion is like a snowball rolling down a hill; it only gets larger. The longer you allow your students to be confused, the worse it gets. That’s why you need to build effective structures to ensure that students who need help are able to obtain it immediately, thus preventing bigger problems later.

Create positive ways to support your students in your classroom to ensure their understanding at every step of the learning process. The time you invest will pay off as you see the light of understanding in your students’ eyes.


Moving students toward more rigorous work is a necessity in our 21st century classrooms. Additionally, the Common Core State Standards require students to increase the level of rigor in their learning. However, for some students, higher expectations are frustrating because they do not understand new concepts. In those cases, additional support and scaffolding is a necessary part of our instruction.

Barbara Blackburn Ph.D. is a nationally recognized expert in the areas of instructional rigor, student motivation, and student engagement. For more information about her speaking and writing, visit
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