Before COVID-19 ravaged the nation, countless struggling learners had a problem. They quickly forgot whatever was taught. Today, the problem continues.

Some are bored; they give little if any thought to what’s taught. Others attend diligently but focus on the wrong information. And when they focus on the right information, they can’t remember much. The reason is simple: They don’t know how to remember.

Now, in the era of COVID-19’s isolation and remote instruction, these problems have intensified. Teachers (and parents) are finding it increasingly difficult to create and sustain struggling learners’ interest and focus. Even when they sustain interest and focus, it’s often inadequate. What they seem to learn on Monday, they forget by Thursday.

Thus, this article will focus on strategies for:

  • Provoking interest and fostering attention
  • Improving memory

Provoking Interest and Fostering Attention

Like everyone, struggling learners are interested in what's happening in their lives and what they want to happen. Also, like everyone, they get bored with the same old breakfast, the same old song, and the same old movie. It’s no different with in-person and remote learning. Like this sentence, the same-old, the same-old, the same-old, the same-old, the same-old, the same-old and the same-old, backfires.

So, what’s the answer? Here’s one answer: Inject novelty, like replacing daily basal reader stories with local newspaper stories and student discussions about their neighborhoods, followed by a student-developed podcast that discusses these stories. During both parts of the activities, offer choices that are acceptable to you and your students. Research shows that choices motivate students.

To ensure that struggling learners view the novelty as safe, teachers will need to pick and discuss stories at the learners’ proper instructional and independent levels, levels that offer reasonable and comfortable challenge. At times, teachers may need to read these stories aloud before asking learners to independently read them. They’ll also need to follow the age-old proverb, “Haste makes waste.” Namely, each step of the way, they’ll need to carefully prepare, support, and encourage learners.

In addition to strengthening interest and attention, novelty appears to support memory and creativity:

New experiences and information stimulate the memory centers of the brain…. That’s why you remember out-of-the ordinary days back in high school…. The novelty of those situations helped to cement them in your brain.

Without novel experiences, creativity and innovation is practically impossible, since our brains are never challenged to consider new perspectives or to integrate new information.

Though it’s important for teachers (and parents) to inject novelty into the lives of struggling learners, caution is needed. A willy-nilly approach might quickly backfire. To prevent this, teachers (and parents) should first answer these questions:

  • How will the novelty help my students achieve their academic, social, emotional, physical, recreational, and vocational goals?
  • Is the novelty likely to distract and overwhelm them?
  • If so, how can I prevent this?

Here’s another answer for motivating struggling learners who, despite novelty, choice, and teacher support, seem unwilling to make reasonable efforts to succeed. Provide them with external reinforces for reasonable efforts and for using the right strategies, in the right situations, in the right ways. Often, such learners have learned it’s best to resist efforts to succeed; when they’ve tried, they’ve been confused, frustrated, and embarrassed. In such situations, the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) strategy of Premacking can help.

Simply put, Premacking takes advantage of the human tendency to want what we don’t have. To do this, Premacking offers struggling learners (and other students) desired reinforcement for achieving a preset standard.

For example, Wilson ignores Mrs. McCormick’s remedial reading lessons. Throughout the lesson, he taps his fingers, yawns, and looks away.

The work she assigns is moderately challenging, but well within Wilson’s abilities. With moderate effort, he’s likely to succeed and achieve meaningful progress. To succeed he needs to correctly use two strategies he learned but won’t apply. He just doesn’t seem to care. But he does care about computer games. He has an abiding interest in computer-game competitions.

Mrs. McCormick knows that three other students in her remote class revel in computer games. So, she announces a standard. Once students successfully complete a 25-minute reading assignment about this morning’s reading lesson, they can participate in a 20–minute computer-game competition.

The process is simple:

  • Mrs. McCormick wants something. She’s specific.
  • Wilson wants something. He knows that the reading task is well within his capacity. He’ll have to focus, think carefully, and work at it, but it won’t frustrate or embarrass him. Nevertheless, he asks himself if the gain’s worth the effort.
  • Wilson assesses the value of reaching Mrs. McCormick’s standard. He compares the effort needed against the benefit of joining the computer-game competition.
  • Wilson makes a decision. He decides that the competition’s worth the effort.

The short-term outcome? Mrs. McCormick wins. Wilson wins.

The long-term outcome? Mrs. McCormick will need to gradually help Wilson develop intrinsic motivation for reading while gradually reducing external reinforces. In other words, Mrs. Wilson needs to focus on helping Wilson read stories, articles, and books that interest him, that extend his world, and that he values.

Premacking is science, not magic. In many instances, it can help. But it won’t help if the task is frustrating, confusing, or overwhelming. Here, Premacking will fail.

Assignments need to be well within the struggling learner’s ability. He needs to believe that he can succeed, that he can achieve the reinforcer, and that the reinforcer is worth his efforts.

Improving Memory

Memory is rarely an “all or nothing” process. The saying, “You have it or you don’t” rarely applies. In other words, there’s much that teachers and parents can do to improve struggling learners’ memories.

The FAT sentence and the REMMOS acronym that follow this paragraph can help. They identify many of the critical factors that teachers and parents can use to strengthen struggling learners’ memories. Likely, ignoring them will perpetuate memory problems. Conversely, teaching them and reinforcing them with abundant practice throughout the year will sustain and strengthen their memories and ability to remember what’s taught.

The FAT acronym: FAT stands for:

  • Focus Your
  • Attention on what’s most important and
  • Think about it.

Memorizing the FAT sentence and focusing on the meaning of its signaling letters — F-A-T — will help teachers and parents direct struggling learners’ attention to what’s most important. Given struggling learners tendency to waste time and energy focusing on what’s unimportant, this is a critical step. In other words, if you habitually focus on the wrong information, how can you learn the right information?

Think of fictional Harry, a minor-league pitcher with a major-league fastball, curveball, and slider who will never make the majors. Why? He refuses to change his habits. Inevitably, he focuses on the grass under his cleats rather than the batter at home plate. Batter after batter walks, Harry’s team loses, Harry loses.

Unfortunately, many struggling learners also ignore what’s important. Usually, the reason is simple. They don’t know what’s most important. Generally, teachers and parents can easily prevent the problem. First, they need to point to and tell struggling learners what’s important to focus on. Then, they need to briefly explain why it’s important. Why “briefly?” At this point, intricate details create confusion.

REMMOS, an acronym, identifies critical strategies that strengthen memory for facts, ideas, conversations, lectures, and so on.

Repeat: Ask your students (or child) to orally repeat the important word, phrase, or number several times. To strengthen the effects of oral repetition, have them write down the word, phrase, or number several times. Finally, repeat the process several times over the next month or so. Rather than extensive daily practice, several times generally means brief practice to or three times a week.

Elaborate: Have your students (or child) describe, explain, and discuss what they need to remember and why it is important for them to do so. If necessary, help them focus on the more important information.

If you’re involved in remote learning, use small Breakup Groups of three students to provoke elaboration. Ask the groups to explain and discuss what they need to remember and why it’s important to do so. For teachers, Breakup Groups have advantages. They can quietly and unobtrusively observe the groups, temporarily join a group, privately prod a group, and provide one or more groups with honest and encouraging feedback.

Make Meaningful: People have a natural tendency to remember what’s important and meaningful to them and to forget what they consider unimportant or meaningless. Consequently, it’s important to help struggling learners identify what’s important, why it’s academically or socially important, and why it’s personally important to them.

It’s also important to have students relate what they’re learning and what they need to remember to what they already know. This connection strengthens their memory.

Here’s an example. Ronald’s a highly cooperative 16-year-old teenager from a poverty-stricken family. He thinks voting is a waste of time. Ask him if he likes food. Ask him about his favorite foods. Ask him who strengthened his broken arm. Then help him relate his food to food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and his physical therapy to Medicaid. Finally, help him relate these benefits to votes for politicians who supported these programs.

Will this guarantee that Ronald will remember the importance of voting? No. But odds are he will.

Organize Information: When you help struggling learners organize information — in ways they’re apt to find meaningful and memorable — they’re likely to remember the information better than if it's random or unorganized.

Here's a random, unorganized list of 10 common words that most struggling learners and their peers will quickly and easily forget: “fix, with, glass, plate, paper, their, fall, siding, toast, them.”

In contrast, here’s another list that they can easily reorganize and better remember: “pineapple, collie, cantaloupe, Chihuahua, bulldog, apple, grape, terrier, boxer, peach.” If struggling learners (and professors like me) try to remember all the words as one extensive list, they won’t remember them as well as if they organized the words into logical categories. Even their mistakes will fall into the “dog” or “fruit” category. In any case, they’ll remember more words from the organized list than the random one.

Space Practice: Here’s a common belief: To help struggling learners remember facts, ideas, and strategies, they need long practice sessions. Like football, the longer your team has the ball, the better. This sounds good. More is better. More feels logical.

Just one problem: It’s wrong.

Is short better? Yes, if…. Yes, if each practice session is short, if it’s 10 rather than 43 minutes long and if it’s explicitly focused on what needs to be mastered. Yes, if struggling learners believe their reasonable efforts will yield success. And yes, if daily practice is thinned out so there’s little or no planned practice on successive days.

Depending on the nature of the materials and the needs of the struggling learners, three successive days of practice might morph into every other day, then every third day, and so on until success becomes almost as automatic as breathing.

Other struggling learners might move directly from daily practice to practice every third day. The schedules are not written in stone. They depend on the struggling learners’ needs, abilities, and the nature of the materials.

Teachers and parents who continuously implement FAT and REMMOS may well improve the memories of many struggling learners. They may accurately remember more facts, more strategies, and more critical concepts, such as democracy, fair play, and fire safety. But all compilations of strategies for improving struggling learners’ memories, as well those of other learners, are positively or negatively influenced by three other factors, factors that many parents, teachers, learning specialist, school psychologist, and school administrators minimize or ignore: Nutrition, sleep, and physical activity. For memory, these factors are foundational.

Here’s a representative sample of expert opinions:

Nutrition: “Recent studies reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory. Unfortunately, foods with saturated fats are often the most affordable and widely available in schools. French fries, sugary desserts, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and other cafeteria staples are filling kids with food that actually lower their brain power before sending them back to class…. Malnutrition can result in long-term neural issues in the brain, which can impact a child’s emotional responses, reactions to stress, learning disabilities, and other medical complications.”

Sleep: “Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep hurts these cognitive processes in many ways. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently…. During the night, various sleep cycles play a role in ‘consolidating’ memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learned and experienced during the day.”

Physical Activity: “Regular physical activity can help children and adolescents … reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression…. Students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviors (e.g., on-task behavior).”

With remote and hybrid instruction, many schools will have little direct opportunity to address these critical factors. Consequently, when teachers, counselors, and administrative staff speak to parents, they should systematically assess these areas. If problems become clear, such as little sleep, poor nutrition, and little physical activity, school personnel might carefully counsel and coach receptive parents on how to solve these problems.

Given the reality of the times, many parents may find it difficult if not impossible to solve these problems. In such cases, school personnel should work to understand the barriers parents are facing and then, if the relationships are strong enough and school personnel have adequate expertise, they should aim to help parents solve the easiest problems first. Aiming to solve the more important and complex issue may backfire, negating the possibility of solving the easier ones.

Even if parents lack the time and energy to solve these problems today, they may want information so they can solve them in the future. Thus, it’s critical for school personnel to share information with receptive parents and provide them with a crystal-clear invitation to discuss these issues in the future.

Creating Success

To have a successful future, struggling learners need to focus on and remember what’s important. When teachers and parents help them focus on and remember what’s important, they increase the likelihood that struggling learners will succeed in and out of school. And some who have learned what to focus on, how to focus, and how to remember what’s important, will no longer need special education services. As there is no time to waste, remote and hybrid learning needs to emphasize focusing on the important and using memory strategies to remember what’s important.