Bringing Slow Learners Up to Speed
It’s no secret that everyone learns and works at a different pace. Some people just pick up principles and concepts faster—others, not so much. But what do you do when that little fact makes its way into a desk in your classroom? Do you, as an instructor, ignore it and hope the person takes the initiative to catch up on his own, or do you address the problem and take the steps to get the student up to speed with his classmates?
Good trainers know that the right answer is the latter. It may take an extra bit of TLC, but there are ways to bridge the gap between the slower learners and the more advanced ones. That gap can be narrowed before a class even begins—and that is by enrolling students who are at an appropriate level for the particular class.
“You can always have divergent students, and that is a problem,” said Vic Melfa, CEO and president of The Training Associates. “It really starts with being proactive and speaking to the people responsible for putting the students in the class and for advertising the class. The first step is to properly describe the class so that all parties—the students and their managers, if they’re employed—know the specifics of the class: what is going to be taught, the class outline, the intended audience, what level of student and what prerequisites the students should come to class with.
“In commercial education centers, somebody is selling students to come to a class,” he added. “It’s important that the salespeople understand the specifics of the class well and that they don’t oversell or undersell. Some aggressive salespeople might try to get more ‘butts in seats,’ as we say, and they bring in people that aren’t well qualified or proper for the class. They’re responsible for making that proper match. And similarly, managers who want their employees to (attend a particular class), they’ve got to make sure they’re not just trying to use up funds in the budget and that they don’t send the wrong student to the wrong class.”
Laurie Campbell, technical training manager for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Colorado, echoed Melfa’s comments about the precautions taken to ensure that the right student is in the course appropriate for her skill level. “We have all of our account executives, as well as trainers, try to assess where the students are, where their skills are, before they come into class, and we try to get them into the appropriate prerequisite classes or make sure they have the required skills to meet that class,” she explained.
She also said that New Horizons encounters varying skill levels, regardless of the steps taken to minimize differences. “Even with the prerequisites, it may be the first time they’ve actually seen the technology that they’re on for the class,” she said. “On the other hand, we may have some other corporate students or students that are in the field already that already have some knowledge.”
What if all the proper channels have been navigated, but you still have students who are a little slower on the uptake than others? What are some specific actions that a trainer can execute to help level the playing field? First, an instructor needs to know where his students currently stand. “Trainers have to properly interview the students. They usually go through student introductions where the instructor can get a feel for their backgrounds,” Melfa said.
Campbell said that a good trainer gets to know her students up front. “(They are) really good at being able to identify students if they’re falling behind or if they’re keeping up,” she said. “They approach the student and will help them at breaks, at lunch or after class. They may suggest that they read ahead to the next day’s material—that way, they’ve actually seen what the instructor is talking about so that they have questions. A lot of times, if a student doesn’t read ahead, they just don’t know what to ask.”
Once you know where everyone is, you can implement several effective methods of helping the slower learners with the material. “You get the advanced students to help you train the slower ones,” Melfa explained. “If (the classroom) is very homogeneous, then you don’t have to do this, but if the slower ones will hold back the faster ones, then you can get the advanced students to do more. And one of the things you can have them do more of is to help you train the slower ones. When you get into the lab portion of these classes—good trainers have different levels of exercises—you can give (the more advanced students) tougher exercises. Another thing you can do is to break the class up into a couple of groups. You can do an advanced group and a slower group and teach each of them separately. This way you’re addressing the two groups separately, but equally in time and exercises.
“Another way (to help slower students) is to pair one with a more advanced student and get the advanced one in the teaching mode too,” Melfa added. “That gives you the opportunity to walk around the classroom and make sure everything is going smoothly, and that people are getting it.
“Another big thing you can do is to shorten the class for advanced students, and elongate the class for the slower students. So the advanced students might want to get out early, they might want to do more things on their own, they might want to do real-life applications. You can dismiss them and keep working with the slower students.”
Essential for students who may need more help is the opportunity to communicate with an instructor outside of the classroom. “Most instructors offer their own e-mail addresses, so if the student is studying and is stuck they can contact the instructor and ask them a question. They can use our e-mails and communicate and ask for any clarification,” Campbell said.
Unfortunately, despite the a series of checks and balances during course enrollment, the need to consider removing a student from a class does arise from time to time. “It is done sometimes,” Melfa said. “If there’s an absolute mismatch, the student is not going to like it at all, they’re going to become disruptive and can be a drag on the rest of the class.”
Campbell agreed and offered a potential solution as well. “Usually, if it gets to the point where we suggest that the student be moved to a lower-level class, the student is willing to do that as well because they identify that they’re in a little over their head and that they need to back up a little bit,” she said. “We might suggest that they go back and take the prerequisite class again—or, if they didn’t take because they thought their skills were there, maybe we should have them take that class.”
When a student is removed from a course, or moved to a lower-level one, it is important to find out why the student may have fallen through the cracks. “Removing students is one thing, but also, you have to go back to the responsible manager or training manager after you’ve discussed it with the student,” Melfa said. “You need to ask the manager, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’” Melfa said that those selling the class need to know the importance of matching students to a class and also the ramifications of a student-course mismatch.
For the most part, students end up in a class they belong in. For those who are on the slower side, there are ways to help them succeed. Melfa explained the mark of a great trainer in one sentence: “Good instructors get into class early, work through lunch and stay late, and they spend extra time with slow students.”
Elizabeth Perveiler, firstname.lastname@example.org