Why Remediation Fails

Why Remediation Fails

Students that struggle unwittingly do two things that ensure they continue to struggle with concepts and procedures.  Students can go to tutoring over and again, and sometimes it works, but it’s a long and frustrating journey.

I’ve fallen victim to these two habits myself, we all have.  How students learn in school is not any different than how adults learn outside of school.  Learning is identifying something that’s wrong and replacing it with something that is right, or at least more efficient.

It is the act of identifying something that is wrong that is the hitch here, the hold up.  The first of the things students do when presented with remediation, that is review materials or a review of what went wrong before, is they morph what they’re seeing to fit what they know.  Of course if they did that the other direction, things would be great.  But that’s not how we learn.

It is imperative to recognize that we develop new learning by relating it to old knowledge.  We don’t just replace all that we’ve developed over time with this new thing.  Instead, we create connections between what’s already in our noggins and what is new.  The more connections we have, the stronger the new learning is and the more quickly it happens.

Consider someone learning to cook.  Say, they learned that Worcestershire sauce is yummy and delicious on steak.  Some spills over into potatoes and that’s not too bad either.  It’s not even unpleasant when it mixes with green beans or broccoli. With some experimentation we can learn that it’s good with chicken, rice and mushrooms.

What’s the thing we know?  Worcestershire sauce makes things taste good.  Not wrong, but not a very deep understanding, right?

Now let’s say this person want to make some desserts.  Someone hands them some cream and tells them to whip it up, so it can top a pie.  Why, they might ask.  Well, to make the pie better, of course.

This whipped cream is new information, it’s something different than what they know.  It’s fundamentally different than Worcestershire sauce.  Yet, whipped cream is supposed to make food better, just like Worcestershire sauce does.  So what students do, in effect, is say, oh, whipped cream is the same as Worcestershire sauce, and I’m used to Worcestershire, so let’s just use that instead.  Same thing after all, right?

A similar thing happens when trying to train someone to use the computer.  They know how to do a set of things and try to use those processes to manipulate this new software.

That is, instead of seeing the new protocol for interfacing with the software as completely new, they instead relate it to what they had done in the past.  They fail to replace old knowledge with new.  Instead, they see the new information as the same thing as what they already have at hand.

How do we, as teachers, combat that phenomenon?  Well, we have to expose what they believe as fundamentally different than what’s right.  We have to expose their misconception as being, well, a misconception that is not aligned with reality.

That’s a tricky thing to do, especially in math, for two reasons.  The first reason is that often in math we are dealing with abstractions.  We can’t have them taste Worcestershire topped cherry pie.  The second reason, especially for math, is that when students see a procedure performed, they feel they understand if they believe they’re able to follow that procedure. (That is not that they are able to perform the procedure themselves.)

That second reason that it is tricky to expose misconception is the second thing that students do, they latch onto procedure.  It makes them feel grounded, even if they are obviously off-base!

How many times has this happened?  You, as the teacher, review a quiz question with students.  They sit there, take notes as you work through a problem.  They all exclaim they can’t believe how dumb they are, how could they have missed that?  They get it now, right?

No.  They don’t.  They followed what you did, you doing all of the thinking along the way.  A large percentage of students will be no better off than before the review.  In some ways, some will be worse because they’ll now think they understand.  Before the review, they just knew they were wrong, probably had no idea why.

What can we do?

This is a tricky thing to answer, dependent on too many variables to articulate a clean protocol.  However, I think I have some ideas that will help in general.

First, when developing a review lesson, test or quiz review, or remediation lesson, you need to have students confront some mistakes.  Maybe they need to try a problem and get it wrong.

Once the misconception is exposed, address why it’s wrong, what’s wrong with it.  Don’t discuss what is right immediately, they’ll translate that to fit what they believe (and that is wrong).  Expose why the misconception is in fact wrong, on a fundamental level.

Next, if possible, arrive at the right conclusion without process or procedure.  Is there a way to think through the conception at play and arrive at what is right?  If so, that’s beautiful.

The last thing is that this new learning will be soft in their heads, a fragile thing.  They need to make a record of what they’ve learned, in their own writing, preferably on the old quiz or next to the thing they used to believe was true.  It’ll be a reminder, because they’ll go for that Worcestershire sauce again when they shouldn’t!  Old habits, they die hard!

I tried something along these lines in a video I prepared for a remedial math class at a community college.  The topic is fractions.  I tried to show how common denominators work without treating them like they were stupid, because they’re not, they just never had to learn fractions, and tried to do so without use of a process.

As I explored the inner workings, and why various things were wrong, I began describing what needed to be done, but the focus was conceptual.  The video is posted here at the end of this article.

This is a topic I hope to explore more in detail, how to help promote the efficacy of remediation and tutoring.  I am working on some experiments I’d like to try to determine more closely the behind the scenes workings here.  Until that time, thank you for reading, thank you for your time.


Philip Brown


Math Can Not Be Taught, Only Learned

Math is something that cannot be taught, but can be learned.  Yet, math is taught in a top-down style, as if access to information will make a student successful, and remediation is rehearsal of that same information.  Earnest students copy down everything, exactly like the teacher has written on the board, but often still struggle and fail to comprehend what is happening.  I argue that if copying things down was a worthy exercise, why not just copy the textbook, cover to cover.  Of course such an activity would yield little benefit at all because math is a thing you do more than it is a thing you know.  Math is only partly knowledge based and the facts are rarely the issue that causes trouble for students.  I’d like to propose that you, either parent, student, administrator or teacher, considers math in a different light and perhaps with some adjustment the subject that caused such frustration will be a source of celebration.

There are many things that cannot be taught but can be learned.  A few examples are riding a bike, playing an instrument, creative writing and teaching.  Without question knowledge is a key component to all of these things, but it is rarely the limiting factor to success or performance.  Instead, the skill involved is usually the greatest limiting factor.  I argue that to learn these things a series of mistakes, incrementally increasing in complexity, must be made in order to learn.  Let’s see if this will make more sense with a pair of analogies.

First, watching someone perform something that is largely skill-based is of little use.  Consider driving a car.  A fifteen year old child has spent their entire life observing other people drive.  And yet, when they get behind the wheel for the first time, they’re hopelessly dangerous to themselves and all others on, or just near, the roads!

Second considering learning to ride a bike.  Sure, the parts of the bike are explained to the child, but they have to get on and try on their own.  The actually learning doesn’t really occur until the parent lets go (letting go is huge!) and the child rolls along for a few feet until they fall over.  Eventually they get the hang of the balance but then crash because they don’t know how to stop.  After they master braking they crash because they don’t know how to turn.  And then speed, terrain, and other obstacles get thrown in the mix.  Each skill must be mastered in order.  Preemptively explaining the skills, or practicing them out of context does not help the child learn to ride a bike.  They must make the mistakes, reflect, adjust and try again.

What a math teacher can provide is the information required, but more importantly feedback, direction and encouragement.  If a student understands that making mistakes isn’t just part of learning, but that a mistake is the opportunity to learn (and without it only imitation has occurred), and a teacher helps provide guidance, encouragement and feedback, then both parties will experience far greater success.  When a math teacher completes a problem for a student it is similar to an adult taking the bicycle away from the child and riding it for them.  When a student gives up on a problem, it’s as if they stopped the car and got out, allowing the adult to drive them home.

The job of math teacher is perhaps a bad arrangement of words.  Coach, mentor or sponsor is perhaps more appropriate.  There is no magic series of words, chanted under any circumstance, that will enlighten a struggling student.  The frustration making mistakes should be cast in a different light, a positive light.  The responsibility of learning is entirely on the student.  They cannot look to teachers, friends or tutors for much beyond explanation of facts.

In a future post I will explain how too much direction and top-down teaching of math promotes failure of retention and inability to apply skills in new applications.  But for now, please consider that math cannot be taught.  A teacher cannot teach it, but can help a student to learn.
Thank you for reading,

The Bearded Math Man