Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 7: Classroom Management and the Learning Environment/Pacing and Structuring
Pacing and Structuring Lessons and Activities
One of the best ways to prevent management problems is by pacing and structuring lessons or activities as smoothly and continuously as possible. Reaching this goal depends on three major strategies:
- selecting tasks or activities at an appropriate level of difficulty for your students,
- providing a moderate level of structure or clarity to students about what they are supposed to do, especially during transitions between activities, and
- keeping alert to the flow and interplay of behaviors for the class as a whole and for individuals within it.
Each of these strategies presents its own special challenges to teachers, but also its own opportunities for helping students to learn.
Choosing Tasks at an Appropriate Level of Difficulty
As experienced teachers know and as research has confirmed, students are most likely to engage with learning when tasks are of moderate difficulty, neither too easy nor too hard and therefore neither boring nor frustrating (Britt, 2005). Finding the right level of difficulty, however, can sometimes be a challenge if you have little experience in teaching a particular grade level or curriculum, or even if a class is simply new to you and in this sense “unknown.” Whether familiar to you or not, members of any class are likely to have diverse abilities and readiness, and this fact alone makes it harder to determine what level of difficulty is appropriate. A common strategy for dealing with these ambiguities is to begin units, lessons, or projects with tasks or content that is relatively easy and familiar, and then gradually introduce more difficult material or tasks until students seem challenged, but not overwhelmed. Using this strategy gives the teacher a chance to observe and diagnose students’ learning needs before adjusting content, and gives students a chance to orient themselves to the teacher’s expectations and the topic of study without becoming stressed or frustrated prematurely. Later in a unit, lesson, or project, students are then in a better position to deal with more difficult tasks or content (Van Merrionboer, 2003). The principle seems to help even with “authentic” learning projects—ones that resemble real-world activities of students (such as learning to drive an automobile), and that present a variety of complex tasks simultaneously. Even in those cases it helps for the teacher to isolate and focus on the simplest subtasks first (such as “put the key in the ignition”) and only move to harder tasks later (such as parallel parking).
Sequencing instruction is only a partial solution to finding the best “level” of instruction, because it still does not deal with lasting differences among students as individuals. The core challenge to teachers is to fully individualize or differentiate instruction: to tailor instruction or activities not only to the class as a group, but to the differences among members of the class? One way to approach this problem is to plan different content or activities for different students or groups of students. While one group works on Task A, another group works on Task B; one group works on relatively easy math problems, for example, while another works on harder ones. Taken very far, managing multiple activities or tasks obviously complicates a teacher’s job, but it can and has been done by many teachers (and it also can make teaching more interesting!). (In Chapter 8, "Instructional Strategies", we describe some classroom management strategies that can help with the multi-tasking that differentiated instruction requires.
Providing Moderate Amounts of Structure and Detail
Chances are that at some point in your educational career you have asked, or at least wished, that a teacher would clarify or explain an assignment more fully, and thereby give it more structure or organization. Students’ need and desire for clarity is especially common with assignments that are by nature open-ended, such as long essays, large projects, or creative works. Simply being told to “write an essay critiquing the novel,” for example, leaves more room for uncertainty (and worry) than being given guidelines about what the essay should contain, what topics or parts it should have, and its appropriate length or style (Chesebro, 2003). Students’ need for structure and clarity varies, furthermore, not only among assignments, but among students as individuals. Some students desire it more than others, and perform especially well when provided with relatively more structure and clarity. Students with certain kinds of learning difficulties, in particular, often learn more effectively and stay on task more if provided with somewhat more explicit or detailed instructions about the specific tasks expected for assignments (Marks, 2003).
As a teacher, the challenge is to accommodate students’ need for clarity without making guidance so specific or detailed that students have little room to think for themselves. Carried to a (ridiculous) extreme, for example, a teacher can give “clear” instructions for an essay by announcing not only exactly which articles to read and cite in preparing for the essay and which topics or issues to cover, but even the wording of the key sentences in their essays. This much specificity may reduce students’ uncertainties and make the teacher’s task of evaluating the essays relatively straightforward and easy. But it also reduces or even eliminates the educational value of the assignment—assuming, of course, that its purpose is to get students to think for themselves.
Ideally, then, structure should be moderate rather than extreme. There should be just enough to give students some sense of direction and to stimulate more accomplishment than if they worked with less structure or guidance. This ideal is essentially Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development that we discussed in Chapter 2: a place (figuratively speaking) where students get more done with help than without it. The ideal amount of guidance—and the “location” of the zone of proximal development—may vary with the assignment and with the student, and it may (hopefully) decrease over time for all students. One student may need more guidance to do his or her best in math, but less guidance in order to write his best essay. Another student may need the reverse. Both students may need less at the end of the year than at the beginning.
The time between activities is often full of distractions and “lost” time, and is often when inappropriate behaviors are especially likely to occur. Part of the problem is intrinsic to transitions: students often have to wait before a new activity begins, and therefore get bored, at the same moment when the teacher may be preoccupied with locating and arranging materials for the new activity. From the point of view of students, therefore, transitions may seem essentially like unsupervised group time, when (seemingly) “anything goes.”
Minimizing such problems requires two strategies, one of which is easier to implement than the other. The easier strategy is for you, as teacher, to organize materials as well as possible ahead of time, so that you minimize the time needed to begin a new activity or class session. This advice sounds simple, and mostly is, but it can sometimes take a bit of practice to implement smoothly. When one of us (Kelvin) first began teaching university, for example, particular papers or overhead transparencies would sometimes move “magically” into the wrong folder in spite of his efforts to keep them where he would find them easily, and finding them caused delays at the last minute while students waited.
A second, more complex strategy is to teach students as many ways as possible to manage their own behavior during transitions (Marzano & Marzano, 2004). If students talk too loudly between activities, for example, then discuss with them what constitutes appropriate levels or amounts of talk during those times, as well as about the need for them to monitor their own sound level at that time. Or if students stop work early in anticipation of the end of an activity, then talk about—or even practice—using a signal from yourself to indicate the true ending point for an activity. If certain students continue working beyond the end of an activity, on the other hand, then try giving students advance warning of the impending end of the activity, and remind them about their taking the responsibility for actually finishing work once they hear the advance warning. And so on. The point of all of these tactics is to encourage students’ sense of responsibility for their behavior transitions, and thereby reduce your own need to monitor them at that crucial time.
None of these ideas, of course, mean that you, as teacher, can or should give up monitoring students’ behavior entirely. Chances are that you still will need to notice if and when someone talks too loudly, finishes too early, or continues too long, and you will still need to give those students appropriate reminders. But the amount of reminding will be less to the extent that students can remind and monitor themselves—a welcome trend at any time during the day, but especially during transitions.
Maintaining the Flow of Activities
A lot of classroom management is really about keeping activities flowing smoothly, both during individual lessons and across the school day. The trouble with this straightforward-sounding idea, however, is that there is never just “one” event happening at a time, even if only one activity has been formally planned and is supposed to be occurring. Even if, for example, everyone is supposed to be attending a single whole-class discussion on a topic, individual students will be having different experiences at any one moment. Several students may be listening and contributing comments, for example, but a few others may be planning what they want to say next and ignoring the current speakers, still others may ruminating about what a previous speaker said, and still others may be thinking about unrelated matters, like using the restroom, food, or sex. Things get even more complicated if the teacher deliberately plans multiple activities: in that case some students may interact with the teacher, for example, while others do work in an unsupervised group or work independently in a different part of the room. How is a teacher to keep activities flowing smoothly in the face of such variety?
A common mistake of beginning teachers in multi-faceted activity settings like these is to pay too much attention to any one activity, student, or small group, at the expense of noticing and responding to all the others. If you are helping a student on one side of the room but someone on the other side disturbs classmates with off-task conversation, it tends to be less effective either to finish with the student you are helping before attending to the disruption, or to interrupt your help for the student until you have solved the disruption on the other side of the room. Either approach is likely to allow the flow of activities to be disrupted somewhere; there is a risk that either the student’s chatting may spread to others, or the interrupted student may become bored with waiting to regain the teacher’s attention and get off-task herself.
A better solution, though at first it may seem tricky or challenging, is to attend to both events at once—a strategy that was named withitness in a series of now-classic research students several decades ago (Kounin, 1970). Withitness does not mean that you focus on all simultaneous activities with equal care, but only that you are aware multiple activities, behaviors, and events to some degree. At a particular moment, for example, you may be focusing on helping a student, but in some corner of your mind you also notice when chatting begins on the other side of the room. You have, as the saying goes, “eyes in the back of your head.” Research has found that experienced teachers are much more likely to show withitness than inexperienced teachers, and that these qualities are associated with their managing classrooms successfully (Emmer & Stough, 2001).
Simultaneous awareness—withitness—makes possible responses to the multiple events that are immediate and nearly simultaneous—what educators sometimes called overlapping. The teacher’s responses to each event or behavior need not take equal time, nor even be equally noticeable to all students. If you are helping one student with seat work at the precise moment when another student begins chatting off-task, for example, a quick glance to the second student may be enough to bring him back to the work at hand, and may scarcely interrupt your conversation with the first student, or be noticed by others who are not even involved. The result is a smoother flow to activities overall.
As a new teacher, you may find your initial skill at withitness and overlapping develops more easily in some situations than in others. It may be easier to keep an eye (and an ear) on the entire class during familiar routines, for example, like taking attendance, and harder to do the same during lessons or activities that are unfamiliar or complex, such as introducing a new topic or unit that you have never taught before. But skill at broadening your attention can and does increase with time and practice. So it helps to keep trying. Merely demonstrating to students that you are “withit,” in fact, even without making deliberate overlapping responses, can sometimes deter students from task behavior. Someone who is tempted to pass notes in class, for example, might not to do so because she decides that you will probably notice her doing it anyway.
Communicating the Importance of Learning and of Positive Behavior
Taken together, arranging space, establishing procedures and rules, and developing withitness about multiple events set the stage for communicating an important message: that the classroom is a place where learning and positive social behavior are priorities. In addition, teachers can convey this message by giving feedback to students in a timely way, by keeping accurate records of their performance, and by deliberately communicating with parents or caregivers about their children and about activities in class.
Communicating effectively is so important for all aspects of teaching, in fact, that we discuss it more fully later in this book (see Chapter 12 about the nature and communication and about ways to facilitate it). Here we focus on only one of its important aspects: how communication contributes to a smoothly functioning classroom by conveying the importance of learning to students and their families.
Giving Timely Feedback
Feedback is a term often used by educators to refer to responses given to students about their behavior or performance. Feedback is essential for students if they are to learn or if they are to develop classroom behavior that is new or more subtle and “mature.” But feedback can only be fully effective if received as soon as possible, when it is still relevant to the task or activity at hand which is usually as soon as possible (Reynolds, 1992). A score on a test is more informative immediately after a test than after a six-month delay, when students may have forgotten much of the content of the test. A teacher’s comment to a student about an inappropriate, off-task behavior may not be especially welcome immediately after the behavior occurs, but it can be more influential and informative then; later, both teacher and student have trouble remembering the context of the off-task behavior, and in this sense may literally “not know what they are talking about.” The same is true for comments about a positive behavior by a student: hearing a compliment right away makes it easier to connect the comment with the behavior, and allows the compliment to influence the student more strongly. Even though there are of course practical limits to how fast feedback can be given, the general principle is clear: feedback tends to work better when it is timely.
The principle of timely feedback is consistent, incidentally, with one of the principles of operant conditioning discussed in Chapter 2: reinforcement works best when it follows a to-be-learned operant behavior closely. In this case think of a teacher’s feedback as a form of reinforcement. The analogy is easiest to understand when the feedback takes the form of praise for something a student did or performed; in operant conditioning terms, the reinforcing praise then functions like a “reward.” But the analogy to operant conditioning still holds when feedback is negative—when a teacher criticizes or reprimands a student. In those cases the criticism or reprimand sometimes functions like what Skinner call an “aversive stimulus” (or mild punishment), shutting down the behavior criticized. At other times, though, a teacher’s criticism functions in a more paradoxical and unexpected way: it acts less like an aversive stimulus than like a negative reinforcement. In these cases the criticism does not shut down a behavior (as true punishment might do), but leads to a less negative state for the student. This happens, for example, if a student misbehaves in order to gain attention from the teacher or classmates and to avoid being ignored. If the teacher in this case criticizes the student for the misbehavior, the student may experience the criticism as a reduction in isolation and as in increase in his importance in the class—in other words, as reinforcement for misbehavior. So the inappropriate behavior continues, and as teachers we might be tempted to say that “he is just misbehaving to get attention.” Figure 7-1 diagrams this sequence of events.
Maintaining Accurate Records
Although timeliness in responding to students can sometimes happen easily or spontaneously, there are also situations where promptness depends on having organized key information ahead of time. Obvious examples are the scores, marks, and grades returned to students for their work. With a short quiz (like, say, a weekly spelling test), it may be possible to return it quite soon after the quiz—especially if you or even your students themselves can mark it during class. More often, though, assignments and tests requiring longer processing times: you have to take significant time personally to read, score, or add constructive comments. The time needed for this work can reduce the usefulness of a teacher’s evaluations to students when she finally does return assignments (Black, et al., 2004). During the days or weeks while students wait for a test or assignment to be returned, they are left without information about quality or nature of their performance; at the extreme they may even have to complete a next test or assignment before getting any information from an earlier one. (Perhaps you have already experienced this problem during your years as a student!)
Delays in providing feedback about academic performance can never be eliminated entirely, but they can be reduced by keeping accurate, well-organized records of students’ work. We offer suggestions for organizing academic records in Chapter 10, but for now we simply emphasize that grading systems benefit students’ learning the most when they provide feedback as quickly and frequently as possible—precisely the circumstances which accurate, well-organized record-keeping can help the most. A number of computer programs are available to help with this challenge; if your school does not already have one in use, then there are several downloadable either free or at low cost from the Internet (e.g. http://dmoz.org/Computers/Software/Educational/Teachers_Help/Gradebooks/).
Accurate records are helpful not only for scores on tests, quizzes or assignments, but also for keeping descriptive information about the nature of students’ academic skills or progress. A common way to do so is the student portfolio, which is a compilation of the student’s work and on-going assessments of it added by the teacher or by the student (Moritz & Christie, 2005; White, 2005). To know of how a student’s science project evolved from its beginning, for example, a teacher and student can keep a portfolio of lab notes, logs, preliminary data, and the like. To know how a student’s writing skills are developing, on the other hand, they could keep a portfolio of early drafts on various writing assignments. As the work accumulates, the student can discuss it with the teacher, and either of them can write brief reflections on its strengths thus far and on the next steps needed to improve the work further. By providing a way to respond to work as it evolves, portfolios can respond to students’ work relatively promptly, and in any case sooner than if a teacher waited until the work was complete or final. (For more on portfolios, see [[Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 10: Teacher-Made Assessments of Learning|Chapter 10).
Communicating with Parents and Caregivers
Since parents and caregivers in a sense “donate” children to schools (at least figuratively speaking), teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed and involved to whatever extent is practical. Virtually all parents understand and assume that schools are generally intended for learning, but communication can enrich their understanding of how this purpose is realized in their particular child’s classroom, and it can show them more precisely what their particular child is doing there. Such understanding in turn allows parents and caregivers to support their child’s learning more confidently and “intelligently,” and in this sense contributes, at least indirectly, to a positive learning environment in their child’s class.
There are various ways to communicate with parents, each with advantages and limitations. Here are three common examples:
- A regular classroom newsletter: The advantage of a newsletter is that it establishes a link with all parents or caregivers with comparatively little effort on the part of the teacher. Since it is not likely to be concerned the problems of individual students, furthermore, it can be phrased in very positive terms. At the beginning of the year, for example, a newsletter can tell about special materials that students will need, important dates to remember (like professional development days when there is no school), or about curriculum plans for the next few weeks. But newsletters also have limitations. They can seem impersonal, for example, or they may get lost on the way home and never reach parents or caregivers. They can also be impractical for teachers with multiple classes, as in high school or in specialist subjects (like music or physical education), where each class may follow a different program or have a different purpose.
- Telephone calls: The main advantage of phoning is its immediacy and individuality. Teacher and parent or caregiver can talk about a particular student, behavior, or concern, and it now. By the same token, however, phone calls are not an efficient way to inform parents about events or activities that affect everyone in common. The individuality of phoning may explain why teachers tend to use this method more often when a student has a problem that is urgent or unusual—as when he has failed a test or has misbehaved seriously. Rightly or wrongly, a student’s successes may not seem urgent enough to merit a call to the student’s home (though perhaps students are more likely to communicate their successes to parents themselves, than to communicate their failures).
- Parent-teacher conferences: Most schools schedule regular times—often a day or an evening—when teachers meet briefly with any parents or caregivers who request a meeting. Under good conditions, the conferences can have the individuality of phone calls, but also the greater richness of communication possible in face-to-face meetings. Since conferences are available to all parents, they need not focus on behavior or academic problems, but often simply help to build rapport and understanding between parents or caregivers and the teacher. Sometimes too, particularly at younger grade levels, teachers organize conferences to be led by the student, who displays and explains his or her work using a portfolio or other archive of accumulated materials (Benson & Barnett, 2005; Stiggins & Chappuis, 2005). In spite of all of these advantages, though, parent-teacher conferences have limitations. Some parents have trouble getting to conferences, for example, because of their work schedules. Others may feel intimated by any school-sponsored event because they speak limited English or because they remember getting along poorly in school themselves as children.
Even if you make all of these efforts to communicate, some parents may remain out of contact. In these cases it is important to remember that the causes may not be parents’ indifference to their child or to the value of education. Other possibilities exist, as some of our comments above indicate: parents may have difficulties with child care, for example, have inconvenient work schedules, or feel self-conscious because of their own limited English skills (Stevens & Tollafield, 2003). Whatever the reasons, there are ways to encourage parents who may be shy, hesitant, or busy. One is to think of how they can assist the class or school even from home—for example, by making materials to be used in class or (if they are comfortable using English) phoning other parents about class events. A second way is to have a specific task for the parents in mind—one with clear structure, definite starting and ending points, and one that truly will benefit the class if someone can in fact complete it. A third is to encourage, support, and respect the parents’ presence and contributions when they do show up at school functions. Keep in mind, after all, that parents are experts about their own particular children, and without their efforts, you would have no students to teach!
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- Moritz, J. & Christie, A. (2005). It’s elementary: Using elementary portfolios with young students. In C. Crawford (Ed.), Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2005 (pp. 144-151).
- White, C. (2005). Student portfolios: An alternative way of encouraging and evaluating student learning. In M. Achacoso & N. Svinicki (Eds.), Alternative Strategies for Evaluating Student Learning (pp. 37-42). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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- Stevens, B. & Tollafield, A. (2003). Creating comfortable and productive parent/teacher conferences. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(7), 521-525.