Ditch the Big Diagnostic: Accelerate Learning Unit by Unit

October 19, 2022

Picture this: You are ready to tackle the new school year and decide to start by giving a diagnostic exam that covers everything your students should have learned up until this point. You figure this will help you decide what to cover before jumping into your grade level content. The results are in, and there's a lot you need to address. Students are feeling discouraged that they are already behind and you are struggling to figure out how to cover the material: Cut out the last few units of the year? Just push ahead without any review? 

We know that you always have your students' best intentions in mind and want to make sure you are setting them up for success. But, a big, first-thing-in-the-year diagnostic test isn’t necessarily going to be what helps you do that. What if, instead, you took each unit, analyzed what students needed to access the standards, and wove your review of foundational skills in on an ongoing basis? 

At Fishtank, we believe that this approach of just-in-time instruction, or accelerated learning, is what can help teachers more accurately identify what skills students need, and help students make meaningful connections between previous learning and current concepts while addressing foundational skills and grade-level standards. 


Is accelerated learning just another word for remediation? 

Nope! Remediation is isolated from grade-level work and mentally pulls students out of their current learning to reteach a significant portion of skills from previous grade-levels, often with a major focus on procedural fluency. Often, this looks like teachers reviewing previous content simply because students haven’t yet acquired the skills, regardless of whether or not students will actually need those skills to access grade level material. A 4th grade teacher might spend valuable instructional time reviewing the 3rd grade categorical data skills, but none of the 4th grade standards include those skills as a prerequisite.  

Acceleration still accomplishes the goal of addressing foundational skills and ensuring increased access to grade-level material. However, acceleration differs from remediation as it integrates a few key topics from previous grades that are directly linked to the grade-level work students are currently working on, and maintains a balance of conceptual understanding, application problems, and procedural fluency. 

Some teachers might be worried that they can’t jump into a unit if students don’t have the procedural skill to solve problems. Consider this: you are about to engage students with real-world applications involving unit rate, but many of your students aren’t yet able to fluently divide. Remediation might mean taking days to just focus on rote procedural fluency of dividing single and two digit numbers. This could mean giving up valuable instructional time, leaving some students bored, and rendering the conceptual understanding you were trying to build–comparing unit rates–fully unaddressed. 

Why wait to start the unit? Acceleration tells us to focus on the conceptual understanding we want students to build and allow the fluency skills to be developed over time. Students that need additional support with division could use a multiplication/division chart or a calculator while still working on grade-level conceptual understanding. A few warm-up problems on division can be enough to spiral in a review of the fluency concept without completely halting grade-level instruction. 


How does accelerated learning impact teachers and students?

Where remediation would encourage teachers to attempt to quickly reteach as much as possible from previous courses before beginning any grade-level work, acceleration encourages strategic decision making about what to review as it relates to each unit. With this approach, you are able to consistently collect data on student knowledge, identify the areas for growth, and respond over the course of the year rather than attempting to make all of these decisions on day one. This allows you more flexibility in giving students what they need in the moment, rather than front loading all possible review topics, some of which might not be revisited or applied for months.

Additionally, focusing on one unit at a time can save you from sacrificing a significant amount of instructional time at the very start of the year. Rather than trying to get through everything, you only need to worry about preparing students for the very first unit. 

Beyond the time saved, teachers can also benefit from choosing acceleration over remediation as it better frames the school year; Instead of feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to even get started when it seems like students have an endless amount of learning gaps, acceleration breaks it down so you are only thinking about one set of concepts and skills at a time for students to work on. 

As a student, imagine staring down at that diagnostic and feeling like you don’t remember anything. Maybe there are 20, 40, 50 questions of content you are supposed to understand, and yet you just aren’t exactly sure where to begin. While remediation relies on such comprehensive diagnostic data, acceleration does not. Instead, students can approach 5-10 questions as part of a pre-unit assessment to see if there are any skills they will need to review for this specific unit. No need to worry about your ability to solve a system of equations by substitution if this unit is about geometry! 

After completing a pre-unit assessment, students are able to participate in mini-lessons or spiraled review that calls upon previous learning as it directly relates to what they are doing in that unit. Connecting previous and current knowledge helps students internalize concepts and more readily build upon them. 

If you are concerned that students are missing key conceptual understanding relevant to the topic rather than procedural skills or unrelated previous learning, then you may want to take a step back and review a bit more in-depth with students. For example, thinking back to our unit rates example in 6th grade, if your students are struggling to understand how multiplication can be interpreted as scaling, especially when non-whole numbers are involved, then you might not be ready to dive into unit rates. Luckily, Fishtank Math has flex days built in for teachers to easily make these decisions and offers resources to engage students in developing that conceptual understanding. 


How does Fishtank Math support accelerated learning?

Because we believe in the power of accelerated learning to benefit both teachers and students, we have thoughtfully created tools and resources to make it easier for you. Our recommended process for accelerating learning can begin before the start of the school year and continues over the course of each unit. 

At the beginning of the year, teachers assess their entire scope and sequence to identify the major work of the grade level and begin to brainstorm around which units may require additional time spent on integrated review and which units may offer up additional time to be spent elsewhere. Each grade level of Fishtank Math offers a full course overview including a Course Summary, Pacing Guide, and Standards Map that outlines all grade-level standards. 

Moving into each individual unit, teachers build their understanding of the content and identify skills that students will need to be successful through intellectual preparation. To guide this intellectual prep process, teachers have access (with Fishtank Plus) to a Unit Launch that helps link prior grade-level work to the current standards and highlights the big ideas of the unit. 

Fishtank Unit Launch introduction

Within each Fishtank unit, all teachers have access to the identified foundational standards from previous years that students will need to be successful. Teachers can use those foundational standards and their understanding from the Unit Launch to begin considering what the most important skills to address for this particular unit will be.

Foundation Standards

To create a fully informed plan for accelerated learning in this unit, teachers will also need to know what skills students have already developed and what they need additional support with. This is where our Expanded Assessment Package (available with Fishtank Plus) comes in, including a pre-unit assessment and a pre-unit assessment analysis guide. The pre-unit assessment consists of 5 to 10 questions specifically designed to provide information on foundational concepts and skills related to the upcoming unit.

Fishtank Pre-Unit Assessment Sample

These assessments are low-stakes for students and therefore offer them the opportunity to show what they know without penalizing them or discouraging them. Additionally, these short pre-unit assessments are designed not to interrupt daily instruction. 

Once students have completed the pre-unit assessment, teachers can use the pre-unit assessment guide to create their accelerated learning plan. The assessment guide offers commentary on the content of each problem and how it connects to grade-level work.

Fishtank Pre-Unit Assessment Analysis Guide Sample

Additionally, the guide includes links that will take teachers directly to a lesson within Fishtank Math that address that particular skill. Teachers can decide whether to pull an entire lesson or a few selected problems to use. This is where teachers can look back on their analysis of the scope and sequence to decide whether they want to add an extra day or two to review previous skills that directly align with the upcoming unit.

Chart showing which lesson teachers can use to review given standards

Fishtank Math allows teachers the opportunity to use their knowledge of students and their content expertise to make decisions about how to incorporate previous learning with current grade-level standards. Our resources are available to support teachers in this process and make it easy to develop an understanding of where students are, where they are going, and create a plan to get them there. 

Ready to help students build foundational skills and fluency while still working towards grade-level content? Dive into Fishtank Math today and check out Fishtank Plus for Math for access to additional resources and Teacher Tools to make it happen

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