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Training Teachers to Understand the Links between Cognitive Abilities and Learning Difficulties

January 29, 2017

            Teachers can greatly benefit from the advances in our knowledge about the connections between cognitive processing abilities and instructional strategies. Without this kind of framework to understand students’ learning problems, it is very difficult to craft an individualized learning strategy that targets the areas of deficit.

I have talked with many teachers who are working hard to understand why students in their classes are not learning. For example, many students experience problems in generating narratives. These difficulties can result from any one or more of a group of cognitive processing deficits. Specifically, students’ productivity can be affected by ability difficulties in generating adequate verbiage. This kind of problem is common in students who were not readers and did not accumulate a solid reservoir of vocabulary to use in oral or written language. However, producing narratives can be influenced by either difficulties in retrieving acquired/already learned information from long term memory or being unable to retrieve the information quickly enough. Either of these difficulties can result in the same productivity problem. Yet, in trying to fix the problem, you need to know which of these deficits are implicated and target your remediation efforts to the specific areas of deficit. Otherwise, you could be remediating the wrong area.

Similarly, I have talked about how a lack of knowledge about how to break down academic tasks into the cognitive processing skills that comprise them can lead to misdiagnosing the problem. For instance, a student who struggled to activate himself to produce a narrative was asked by the teacher to produce not only a greater quantity of verbiage, but also a qualitatively more sophisticated piece. The teacher did not realize that the student suffered from a shortage of adequate vocabulary because of reluctance to read over the years. The student also had a deficit in fluid reasoning, a skill that involves inferential thinking. Consequently, going beyond concrete writing was extremely difficult. Asking the student to produce in two ability areas in which he was deficient morphed into a behavioral problem.

Knowledge of the ability areas and the executive functioning skills that mediate the connection to these abilities can help teachers to understand and remediate learning difficulties and give them a framework that will inspire a sense of mastery and confidence in working with students with learning difficulties.

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