John Jensen: Classroom Turnaround is Easy, Folks

by John Jensen, PhD

A classroom turnaround (or acceleration) in a couple weeks is barely thinkable, like condos on the back side of the moon.  And to call it easy beggars belief because so many have struggled for so long without achieving that. .

We can draw a lesson from noting hard to easy in other simple areas. If for example you want to use a crowbar to lift a heavy object, the key is where you place its tip to maximize the leverage you obtain from the crowbar’s length. Once you find that spot, the lift is easy. We can expect an easy classroom turnaround when we know what our crowbar is and find the optimal spot to place it. For classrooms, the crowbar is the set of prevailing conditions.

Everything depends on the conditions you present. You’ve often heard, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”  The saying applies to you and your students. To change their learning, you will have to change what you do. You need to grasp the impact of available conditions, and distinguish those that accelerate students from those leaving them in mediocre attainment.

Not all conditions are equal. The immediate ones matter most, that take hold in the present moment, for which you don’t wait five years for district-wide policies to filter down to student behavior.  Students respond instantly to what happens now. They act differently when a new person comes to your room, when an unexpected event occurs, when a new task is presented, and when you yourself feel differently.  Their actions print out the conditions you supply with every word and deed. Even the silent thought you think influences them. They are interested or bored due to conditions.  They retain their learning or not based on conditions.

School reform outcomes of late have so often been marginal and frustrating from a failure to think through conditions that are often far removed from student effort.  Instead we want conditions that can be applied minute by minute, that directly generate student effort, and that result in long-term learning. In sum, the crucial ones elicit the kind of effort that results in permanent learning. We are not content with generally positive conditions.. Certain types of student effort lead to retained learning, but only a few conditions generate that kind of effort. Three are particularly significant.

CONDITION ONE.  The first begins with a valid criterion for gains in learning. How do we identify a single step of learning in any subject for any student of any age?  The standard means is answering a question. Formalized, this is testing, but more generally it is just the ability to explain or demonstrate knowledge.  After input, then output.

A common impediment renders this measure less useful. As it is presently employed nationwide, the learning it captures may be valid only at the moment the question is answered.  The student may barely know it, and forget it before the day is out.  Others may know only a portion, and some may only barely know only a portion.  The result is a classroom-wide gradient of forgetting. Unless something else is done after the material is learned, it steadily decays. Students later may not even remember they had the subject.

Tweaking the criterion a little provides us a valid and reliable measure. We define mastery as the ability to answer a question and maintain it. Teaching to this standard alters our hourly objective. We aim at bringing as much learning as possible up to the “maintained” level for as much knowledge as we can, which depends completely on how we use class time. We arrange it so that everyone masters (maintains) essential knowledge, and  everyone has the means to expand what they maintain. We cease using time just to familiarize them. After everyone knows it approximately, we keep going until everyone knows it permanently.

Let’s say you teach a literature section with ten points to convey.  You arrange time so everyone masters (maintains) points one through six. If some also master and maintain points seven through ten, this is a bonus. The key is not how much you “cover” or how much they understand, but rather how much they themselves can continue to explain at any time in the future. We design instruction so that whatever they learn, they learn permanently. That’s where the reward, the turnaround, the acceleration lies. Those who learn only half the points but steadily maintain them will soon outpace those who learn everything but don’t maintain it. .

To pursue maintenance of knowledge, allocate time differently. Arrange for your students to continue to practice explaining what they wish both to master and to recall. Optimal time-use sees fifty to eighty percent of each period spent at this in partner pairs. From the first week, they easily explain everything back to the beginning of the term, and continuing to do this, by the end of the term they master the entire subject. But this occurs only if you turn over the bulk of class talking time to students so they can repeatedly practice putting the entire course into their own words and thought-forms.

Once students have learned and held onto material even briefly, maintaining (retaining) it permanently is achieved by spaced recall that is well-established in learning research and applied by steady partner practice in explaining.

CONDITION TWO.  The second condition converts the effort of the first into satisfying and significant social capital. What is mastered (maintained) is performed. Students intuitively value a competence they can demonstrate successfully to their peers, particularly when all face the challenge together. They instinctively want to rise to the competence they admire in others and toward which their own effort is aimed.

The teacher accomplishes this with a few minutes a day of performing learning. Game-like qualities add appeal so that objective conditions replace teacher judgment. First, the teacher steadily collects in a bin all the questions that comprise everything learned in the course so far. Everyone has learned, practiced, and maintained the questions placed in the bin, so that everyone can anticipate a success experience. The teacher writes each student’s name on a popsicle stick and places the sticks in a cup.

Daily for 3-5 minutes before dismissal, the teacher or a selected student draws a question from the bin and then a name. The designated student springs to his/her feet, answers the question, everyone applauds, and more questions and names are drawn for the time available. Foreseeing this cap to their day’s effort gives students a visible outcome that matters in their social niche.  Few conditions short of life and death affect them as deeply.

CONDITION THREE.  While the two conditions above generate a substantial stream of solid learning, a third solidifies their body of knowledge. It aids both of the prior conditions, and helps students personally claim what they know. As an analogy, think of purchasing a plot of land to build a house.  The first thing you do is identify what you have to work with. You obtain a deed to the dimensions of the lot.

Students are highly alert to determining what they regard as theirs and what belongs to someone else. Adults tell them constantly to adopt this or that behavior but often without providing the conditions making it likely.  A basic, standard means of obtaining knowledge for oneself is the physical act of writing it out.. Picture a teacher presenting a section, the class discussing it, and teacher and class together developing a concise summary that everyone copies  into their notebook.  The student readily thinks, “I am making this my own.  I am taking possession of this knowledge.  I am going to learn everything I write down.”  A single page of writing takes about six minutes, and contains an appropriate chunk size to be practiced and initially mastered in the remaining half-period.  From 180 school days with four such periods, one foresees 720 pages of selected material that can be comb-bound with covers, and given a proud place in the student’s room at home as “everything I learned this year.” By distinguishing what will be learned (maintained) perfectly, and personally gathering it word by word, the student has already exerted half the effort required to claim and maintain it permanently. Leaving their task vaguely boundaried, on the other hand, practically insures rapid forgetting.

Raising students’ learning quickly can be achieved by three conditions: a valid measure of mastery defined as what they retain ongoing, performing it to their peers, and pages they themselves produce that sum up what they will labor to learn.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request:

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at