Have you ever been in a situation where you ask a student a question and they freeze up? It’s happened to all of us and the silence can send us spiraling…
Confusion: “Did they hear me?”
Blaming: “Why don’t them apply themselves?”
Self-doubt: “If I were a better educator, they would know this.”
The silence can feel so uncomfortable that many times we quickly break it by rephrasing the question, calling on someone else, or even saying the answer. BUT, what if I told you we can turn those cricket chirps into an opportunity for learning and growth?
I’ve started a new habit that’s been a game-changer for me in my one-to-one and group sessions. It’s a three-minute intervention that I can’t wait to share with you because it’s a powerful tool that can help you connect with your students and understand their learning process like never before.
We’re covering everything from retrieval practice to body language to affirmation today, so you don’t want to miss it.
If you’re ready to learn the simplest way to teach your students how to learn and study more effectively, head over to https://gretchenwegner.com/study/ and download my free study cycle guide filled with knowledge, tips, and best practices you can start sharing today.
You can watch the video below … or keep reading!
Hey there educators, do you ever have an experience in your coaching session or your classes similar to what I’ve been experiencing recently, which is you ask a student or a group of students a question…and there’s crickets? It’s quiet. It’s a people freeze.
I’ve started a new habit that’s only about a three minute intervention that I think is kind of groundbreaking for educators to try both in your one-to-one sessions and meetings with students, but also in your full group classes. In this video, I’m going to tell you a story about a time that I’ve tried it and talk you through the four steps of the intervention. And then at the very, very end, I’m going to share with you why I think this three minute intervention is so powerful–so stick around for that.
Okay, storytime first. The story is about how I used this in for intervention in a one-to-one coaching session, but, teachers, it’s incredibly possible to do it in a group setting–so I will talk about that towards the end of the video. But for now, let’s just get the story out there, so you have an example of what I’m talking about.
This particular student was a new student at the school, and was really disappointed that they had failed their first quiz and had reached out to me for support because they didn’t want to get in some bad habits. (And a side note for future videos. I’m researching how to get students to actually ask for help before they need it.) So this was huge that the student actually reached out and asked for my help after their very first class. We were in a session together sitting in the lunch room, one-to-one. And at some point, I said to him, “Well, let’s just practice. What did you learn yesterday in your first class?” And he did that thing: he paused, held his breath and looked up in one direction or the other–I don’t remember which direction. We were quiet for a time.
Now in the past, I might have interrupted, because quietness is difficult, and we don’t want people to be uncomfortable, but I let him struggle with it for a little while. Then at some point, his body language changed, and I could tell that he had thought of something that he was about to say. That’s when I interrupted him and asked him the question I’m going to tell you in a moment. It generated a fascinating conversation, because I learned so much about the student, and he actually learned about himself and his own mind while answering the question. That then helped us see what kind of an intervention and what kind of strategies he actually needs to be successful in this class and in this new program he’s doing. So I think we should dive right in, and I’ll talk you through the steps here–so we can get to that question, because I want all of you to experiment with trying this question in your coaching or tutoring sessions or your classrooms.
The Four-Step Process
Step #1: I did something to ask the student to practice retrieval. If you don’t know, retrieval practice is testing yourself to see what you know and what you don’t know. There’s so much more I could say about this. In fact, I have a free little gift for you all about the study cycle and the power of retrieval practice. You can grab that here. So go get that free gift if you want some background information about what kinds of questions constitute retrieval practice.
For this video, we simply want to test the student to give them the opportunity to see what they know. So maybe you test them about something they learned from you. If you’re a classroom teacher, maybe you’ve just done a little bit of a lecture, and then you ask the whole class a question. If you’re a coach, maybe you ask something they learned recently in one of their classes, or perhaps you just taught them something like the study cycle, and you could ask them to practice retrieval to see what they remember from that.
Step #2: actually notice what happens when they search for the answer. Pay attention to the pause. Pay attention to where their eyes go. Pay attention to their breath. What else? Is there a look on their face? Do they look panicked? Do they look calm? Do they look curious? Do their shoulders hunch? It’s so interesting to pay attention to students. And if you’re in a classroom setting, what happens? A lot of people could have a lot of different responses. So just give them time to search for the answer and pay good attention.
Step #3: this is the magic question. When it seems they might have found the answer, interrupt them before they actually provide the answer. And then say, “Let’s pause just a second,” and then ask, “What just happened there?” And then listen. Now if your students are older, like the medical students I’m working with right now, they can answer that question a little more easily than, say, a middle school student can. You might have to ask some guiding questions, like, “How did you look for the answer?” “What did you notice you were thinking?” “Tell me what happened.” But then really pause and listen to their experience. Every time I have asked this question so far with students, they have said some brilliant things that helped me understand their learning process and what was going on for them.
Step #4: once they’re done sharing what happened in their brain, affirm their experience. There’s so much you can point out. If you’re somebody who’s been in my anti-boring ed world for a while, you know the study cycle and you may know the other brain science mini-lectures, so you probably could take this even deeper and even wider than I’m going to share right now.
First of all, you can let the person know practicing retrieval takes effort. “You couldn’t just get the answer immediately, could you? You had to search for it for a moment.” One of the students I was talking to said, “It was like I had like the ‘buffer wheel.'” I was like, “Exactly your brain has to buffer. And so while your brain was buffering, what was going on for you?” This particular buffering student said, “Well, I was trying to imagine the classroom, and all the equipment we were learning to use inside that classroom. So I was trying to imagine it visually. But I had trouble. And then I noticed that I was telling myself, ‘God, you can’t even remember what we did yesterday. What kind of a student are you?'” So he was putting himself down, right? So this is where we can talk about retrieval takes effort, it takes that buffering time, it is effortful, and it doesn’t feel good. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. If it’s hard or uncomfortable, even for a brief second for you, you are normal. That’s what this is–freezing is normal.
Secondly, you have an opportunity to tell them what you notice about their learning preferences. And in the case of this student, I said, “Wow, you’re so visual–that was really smart that you were trying to remember the actual equipment inside the classroom.” (Giving compliments is always a good thing!) You can also point out what you’re noticing about their self-talk, like, “How interesting that when things get a little uncomfortable, which is totally normal, your brain rushes in and puts you down and tells you you should be different, you should be smarter, you should be fill-in-the-blank. Is that a normal experience for you in life?” So that way, we’re starting to learn more about the kinds of self-talk that might inhibit them as students. This is so powerful.
In my experience, after all of this, we can then move more effectively into picking some study strategies that are going to work for them once they understand what happens in their mind better. We can tell them, “You’re gonna have resistance with some of these retrieval practice strategies. But again, it’s totally normal. Just notice your self-talk.” Then we can move quickly into wrapping up the session and helping them walk away with a tool that feels really possible for them to improve their studying.
If you’re a classroom teacher…
If you’re a classroom teacher, first of all, this could be a wonderful thing to do on a regular basis. You could say, “hey, I’m going to ask you all a retrieval practice question,”–because, hopefully, you’ve taught your students the study cycle, and they understand what it is and why it’s important, and you do this frequently. So you can ask them a retrieval practice question, and then give them time. Maybe tell them in advance, “I’m going to give you 30 seconds to think about it. We’re just going to be quiet. Raise your hand when you think you might have an answer.”
And then as hands start coming up, wait a little bit for the slower minds, and then say, “Okay, everybody, hands down. I want you to think about something else. What just happened in your brain while you were looking for the answer?” Maybe get examples from a couple people in the class and ask, “How many of you had that experience? How many of you notice that you put yourself down in your mind? How many of you notice you think visually? How many of you notice you think with words? Isn’t this interesting? All brains are different, but all brains have to buffer in different ways. And don’t be down on yourself if you notice yourself buffering.”
So why is this little three-minute habit a good one to do?
- The first reason is metacognition; it helps build students’ ability to notice their process. And when we notice our process, we can improve our process. But we can’t improve it until we notice it. And many teachers, I think, jump to trying to help students improve before they actually have full consciousness about how they’re learning and what’s happening in the moment.
- Second, it reveals in just three minutes the students’ learning preferences or learning styles. It’s good to know your learning preference. (It doesn’t mean you should only learn that way, but it’s good to know what it is.) It also lets you know what kind of self-talk the student has, and how mean that self-talk is. With some students, it’s not too mean, and with some, it’s incredibly mean.
With one of the students I was working with–this person happened to be an African American male–we were able to move for just a moment into where this kind of self-talk comes from, how society has been built for certain of us to internalize messages about our lack of worth, why this is so important to figure out in a school environment, and how to tackle it because you don’t want to go into being a student having believing what society has said about you because of your race, class, gender or anything else. So we were able to have a really powerful conversation about that. And then also it teaches us what the student’s response to efforting is, and how comfortable they are with efforting. One of our goals as educators is to help students be able to tolerate increasing amounts of mental effort, right? That’s kind of, in some ways, the definition of being a teacher.
- Third, it also normalizes difficulty. Students often think they’re the only ones who buffer so much or so slowly, and that they’re stupid. Whenever we can find an opportunity to say,”You are normal; this is the way the brain is built–to take time to think,” it’s a good thing.
- And fourth, it encourages students to engage in the most important learning habit there is, which is retrieval practice. All the neuroscience around learning points to the power of testing ourselves to create bigger neural pathways in our brains. And if you really want to learn more about that in much more detail, which I believe every educator no matter what kind of educator you are, ought to know. I’ve got the tools for you: if you’re a teacher, go here … or an acaemic coach (or want to be), go here. I would love to hear what was valuable down below–maybe even a story or two about how you notice this is relevant in your own educational context. Thank you so much for sticking with the video, y’all and sticking with these ideas. So take good care. I look forward to reading your comments, and I’m going to see you in our next post.
Totally on target! My best is the way it gets students to think about their thinking. What a powerful shift from listening to their inner critic to normalizing the learning process as they’re doing so!
Love this and I can see myself applying it with many students!