3 Strategies to Support Student Understanding

Steven WeberBlog, Engage Better, Manage Better


  • Schools and districts need to think ahead to the future and prepare a strategy to meet the needs of each learner.
  • The most effective strategy to support student understanding may be to combine the following:
    • Through a deficit approach to provide additional support to fill in the gaps.
    • Building on the strengths of learners through assessments, feedback, and academic intervention.
    • Prioritizing both academics and SEL across the curriculum.

Houston, We Have a  Problem.

We have a problem and the problem is not the students. When schools reopen, educators should remember that we need to redesign the system to meet the needs of each learner. The pandemic will have a beginning, middle, and end. “Leading through a crisis requires taking the long view, as opposed to managing the present.  You need to anticipate what comes next week, next month, and even next year in order to prepare the organization for the changes ahead” (McNulty and Marcus, 2020).

Teachers, students, and families are anticipating that students will return to school with multiple readiness levels. During the pandemic, some students have a high number of absences or have quit attending school. Some families were able to pay for a full-time teacher or an adult to teach students at home. Other students remained home alone while their parents went to work.  

The love of learning is built on the strengths of each learner. When educators focus on a student’s strengths, they will be able to support deep learning. Click To Tweet

How can schools prepare for the 2021-22 school year? There are multiple theories on what students will need to know and be able to do in a post-pandemic school setting. It is still uncertain how much students will retain from the previous two school years, which were abruptly disrupted due to COVID-19 and the closing of schools for onsite instruction.

Designing school for students who have experienced trauma, hunger, learning loss, depression, and other barriers will require a strategy. While most schools have a plan for supporting student understanding, few districts have a strategy.

Support Student Understanding: Deficit Approach 

When you hear educators use terms such as learning loss, failure rate, achievement gap, and COVID slide, the focus is on what students ‘lost’ during the pandemic. Some schools may have plans to offer remediation, after-school tutoring, credit recovery, online classes, or academic intervention. These are strategies that support student understanding.

The deficit approach predicts that learners will need additional support and educators design plans to address student weaknesses or gaps that may have been created by the disruption to teaching and learning. Educators should use caution when hyper-focusing on student deficits. A deficit approach can cause curricular reductionism, teaching to the middle, and assuming that students are not prepared for academic challenge and enrichment.

Support Student Understanding: Strengths-Based Approach

Every learner will return to school with strengths and prior knowledge which will support further learning. The love of learning is built on the strengths of each learner. When educators focus on a student’s strengths, they will be able to support deep learning. According to McTighe and Silver (2020), “deep learning is a process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to a new situation.”

Pre-assessment, common formative assessments, feedback, and academic intervention will support students as they learn key skills and concepts while building on their strengths. “Feedback is the intervention tool with which teachers can empower learners to get into the driver’s seat of their own instructional decision-making. More importantly, it is the tool with which teachers can build hope and efficacy for their learners” (Erkens, 2015).

Support Student Understanding: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

The pandemic highlighted the need for social and emotional learning in schools. If schools only focus on academic skills, instructional strategies, and identifying the priority standards for the upcoming school year, they may not be able to address the needs of the whole child. SEL should not be a lesson that educator’s teach every Thursday or during advisory.  Academics and SEL should be a priority and educators should intentionally support SEL across the curriculum. CASEL (2021) provides a rubric for school teams to assess their current level of SEL implementation.

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The most effective strategy may be to combine the deficit approach, strengths-based approach, and social and emotional learning. Over focusing on student deficits will hurt students’ confidence and may cause teachers to water down the curriculum. When students return to school, it will be important to provide review and interventions. It will also be time to give students a launchpad for future success.

Fifty years ago, Apollo 13 astronauts safely landed in the Pacific Ocean. Failure was not an option for the crew or for those working in mission control. Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell said, “The flight was a failure in its initial mission. However, it was a tremendous success in the ability of people to get together, like the mission control team working with what they had and working with the flight crew to turn what was almost a certain catastrophe into a successful recovery” (Granath, 2015).  Does your school team have a strategy for helping students have a successful recovery?


CASEL. (2021). Promote SEL for students – rubric. Retrieved February 27, 2021 from  https://drc.casel.org/promote-sel-for-students-rubric/ 

Erkens, C. (2015). Make sure every student learns. Solution Tree Blog. Retrieved February 27, 2021 from https://www.solutiontree.com/blog/make-sure-every-student-learns

Granath, B. (2015). Members of Apollo 13 team reflect on NASA’s Finest Hour. NASA. Retrieved February 27, 2021 from https://www.nasa.gov/content/members-of-apollo-13-team-reflect-on-nasas-finest-hour 

McNulty, E.J., & Marcus, L. (2020). Are you leading through the crisis … or managing the response? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2020/03/are-you-leading-through-the-crisis-or-managing-the-response

McTighe, J., & Silver, H. Instructional shifts to support deep learning. Educational Leadership (78)1. Retrieved February 27, 2021 from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept20/vol78/num01/Instructional-Shifts-to-Support-Deep-Learning.aspx

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (AR). His areas of research include curriculum design, formative assessment, professional learning, and school leadership.