2.3 Making connections between concepts
While I was writing this weblog, someone asked me:
I agree with you about engaging your students. I have had the same problem. I can do a fun science lab or other activity and also give an extended lesson beforehand to explain the content. The very next day, I still hear the comments “I don’t get it.” I don’t quite understand because I gave a lesson explaining the concept, did a demonstration, we had an activity and did a lab which demonstrated the concept being taught. Everything is explained with reasons “why.” The lab homework questions want the students to reflect on the lab and make connections. This is where I see problems. My students cannot make connections from concept to concept, like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Is there anything else I can do?
The simple answer is yes. There are other things you can do. It is impossible for me to know exactly what approach will help most without really knowing your students, so I’ll throw out several possibilities and let you decide what might help most with your kids.
Make time in class for students to respond.
If you create more room for students to respond during class time, you can identify and address the problem when their understanding breaks down.
When you listed the events that occurred during class, you mentioned periods of description, demonstration, activity, lab, and constant explanations of purpose. What do these activities look like? If the descriptions, demonstrations and explanations are coming from you, and the activities and labs are prescriptive (i.e. do this, then do that), then there is no space for the students to actually interact with the concepts in class. They hear the material, touch the material, even manipulate the material, but are never asked to respond to the material.
They are later asked to respond to the lab questions — which you describe as homework that asks the kids to “reflect and make connections,” and that is great — but those questions are exactly the type of assessment that will identify points of confusion, and those are the exact points at which they need your guidance.
Perhaps you could either ask them to do the homework questions in class, have them respond more to the other in-class elements of the lesson, or both. You may think those things will take too much time, but my response to that concern would be threefold:
- You’re spending the same amount of time going back to clarify the material anyway.
- Insisting on responses along the way may require less time than you think. For example, you could say, “I’ve just done a demonstration. Everyone turn to their neighbor and tell him or her what they think will happen if I alter one element of the system. Now let’s do that. Were you right? If not, let’s review the concept and try to make another prediction.” Or, after an explanation, you might say, “I’ve just explained this. Now I am asking everyone to please summarize what I have said on a small piece of paper. I’ll collect them all, read a few summaries aloud (without revealing your names), and we’ll discuss what key points are present in, or missing from, each.” These activities require very little time, but force kids to respond to the material and allow you to identify and address points of confusion before moving on.
- If you really need to get the time back somehow, do it by assigning a simpler element for homework. For example, have students read the description of the concept and your explanation of purpose for homework the night before, then use the time that frees up for in-class responses.
One last note on this point: Make sure those in-class responses are answers to real questions that address the concept, its relationship to other course material, and its applications. Only then will you have an accurate idea of whether the next step is to review or to move on.
Make the connections you want them to “get” explicit.
I support the idea of students figuring things out on their own, but if they are not getting there, draw them a map. You can physically do this with graphic organizers. Some teachers use advance organizers that highlight concepts students have already learned and show them where new knowledge fits in their present schema (like highlighting what they already know about the properties of solids and liquids before introducing the properties of a gas, then having them compare and contrast). Other teachers provide unit organizers that summarize new concepts and clarify how they relate to each other (“Today we’re learning about the interaction of heat, pressure and volume. Here’s how they interact. Now, predict what will happen when this bottle is heated.”)
Remember, giving students a map is not giving them the answer. Maps help identify how points are connected. Students must still be able to intellectually travel from point A to point B. Note that both of my examples asked students to do something with the map they were given: predict, compare and contrast, and so on.
To frame this point in the language of your own question (which mentioned that they couldn’t “put the pieces of the puzzle together”), I’ll state this one other way that might be helpful: Make sure they know what the final puzzle should look like. It would be much harder for us to put a puzzle together if no one provided us with a vision of the final product. That’s why puzzle manufacturers print the image on the top of the box!
Ask your students what is working, and what is not.
Ask them explicitly where they are getting lost or if they have experienced a different teaching strategy that worked especially well for them. If a majority responds well to a particular approach, then make sure you try it, but don’t forget to use a variety of methods so that you reach all of your kids.