Supporting Struggling Learners in the Life Sciences

Science, in general, is a complicated subject. Needless to say, when you begin to use science to explain and understand the natural world, not to mention life itself, the combination can produce a lot of anxiety and struggles in understanding with students. As an educator, it will be my responsibility to constantly monitor for gaps in understanding, misconceptions, struggles in academic language comprehension, and any other hardships my students may be experiencing, and to modify my approach to teaching to meet students where they are at while still maintaining high expectations and providing a challenge.

Grey 2012 talks about building background by connecting the content to the lives of the student and linking it to past and present learning, as well as emphasizing key vocabulary. This is of particular importance and relevance to science due to its vocabulary density. One paragraph in a textbook may have 10 scientific words that spell check doesn’t even recognize but do have meaning nonetheless. As an educator, I will have to take special care to teach students how to determine the meanings of word using their latin roots and other contextual clues, a task that will be ever more important for a student who is struggling.

Overall, it’s hard to point at one, or even a handful of strategies to use to help struggling learners in science. Partially because there are a great many areas pertaining to literacy a student may struggle with. It may be measurement, how to use certain tools like dichotomous keys, lab equipment use, the academic language, etc. In a more general sense, some strategies I may implement to help a student who is struggling would be in providing a better framework for understanding that scaffolds for their success. Some of my favorite strategies discussed thus far in the semester are QAR, the SQ3R, and vocabulary activities that focus on the structures and contextual relationships of words. On the latter, an example of usefulness can be understood by looking at a word like Chiroptera, the order that bats belong to. At first, the word sounds made up and difficult to memorize, but if you look at how the word is formed suddenly it isn’t so complicated. Chiroptera means “handwing”. Ptera, like pteryodactyl, means wing while chiro means hand. Understanding or having a key you can use to decipher these scientific words makes them less scary and suddenly more comprehensible. 

Additionally, I would work to relate the content to the student in as many ways as possible. Finding a penpal researcher, asking the student to think or journal about ways the content connects to their personal lives and providing opportunities for the student to own their struggle by having them present their points of confusion to a group of peers in a tutorial process such as what is used in AVID are just a handful of strategies I would like to implement to help a struggling learner. 

Depending on the point of struggle, sometimes apps, games, or other technologies such as VR may help to provide some physicality and visualization to complicated tasks. Sometimes, the struggle comes with trying to remain focused and able to interpret complicated scientific literature. Providing alternative resources that still get at the core concepts in the form of podcasts, videos, blog posts, or articles from popular sources (news, etc) can help to put complicated topics into simpler, more layman’s, terms that are easier to mentally digest.

All in all, the complicated nature of this issue speaks to the need to constantly engage in formative assessment and surveying of background knowledge and misconceptions. As a teacher, you need to stay vigilant and willing to adapt to ensure the success of all of your students through differentiation, personalized learning, and activities that work to build comprehension. 

Grey, P. D. (2012). Book review: “Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners, The SIOP Model”. Acta Didactica Norge, 6(1), 22. doi:10.5617/adno.1092

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