Remediation is needed whenever a student hasn’t mastered essential learning goals.  The overarching purpose of remediation is for a student to learn from his mistakes. However, there are a number of specific strategies that make this phase of the learning sequence more effective.  Good remediation will include some or even all of the following:

Isolating the difficulty. 

For a student to be successful at any complex task, he must first master a number of subskills.  For example, to solve a physics problem, a student must be able to read the problem carefully and determine what information is being given, what the unknown is, and which equation should be used.  He must be able to rearrange that equation to solve for the unknown, use the units (such as meters per second or Newtons of force) correctly, and use a calculator to arrive at an answer. If he cannot do every one of those steps, he cannot solve the problem.

When that happens — when he is unable to solve the problem — how he responds is critically important.  If he has a fixed mindset, he will give up and tell himself that he just doesn’t know how to do this kind of work, or that he’s no good at physics, or even that he hates this class.  To be successful, he needs to overcome his willingness to give up. Instead, he needs to be able to identify specifically what part of the process he doesn’t yet know how to do and take the necessary steps to learn that subskill.  If, in the example above, he’s struggles with rearranging algebraic equations, then he needs to be taught how to do it and practice until he becomes proficient at it.

Effective remediation, then, must help him identify the specific problem area that he needs to work on and give him the ability to practice and learn it.  Only then can he integrate the new learning into solving the whole problem.

The act of isolating the difficulty in this way not only teaches him this one particular skill, it helps him internalize the growth mindset;  he learns that he can be successful if he applies himself. He learns, in fact, a great deal about how to learn.

Trusting the process. 

If there is a process built into learning a new skill, as there is in the physics example above, then the student can practice that process until he is proficient at it.  This allows him to take on problems that would otherwise be too daunting even to start.  The trick is to trust that if he can successfully complete the first step — figuring out the givens and the unknowns in the example above — then that will lead him to the second step of choosing the appropriate equation.  If he gets that far, then substituting in the givens into that equation isn’t too big a step, and so forth.

The analogy I find helpful is that of driving a car at night.  You may not be able to see your destination, or even very far along the road, but if you have your headlights on, you can see far enough ahead to keep going and eventually reach your goal.  The headlights are the process.  

Incidentally, this focus on the process is an excellent, legitimate argument for why it is important to practice doing a certain skill, even when you think you have already mastered it.  The more the process becomes second nature through repetition, the more useful it is as a tool when solving problems that are challenging.

Unlearning misunderstandings. 

One of the most pernicious of problems occurs when a student has a preconceived notion that is, in fact, wrong.  It often takes serious effort to replace that belief with the truth. If you want a quick education about this (or want to get the idea across to your students), watch “A Private Universe”, a film about how Princeton graduate students still believe their childhood misunderstanding about why the moon has phases.  They believe, in spite of the best education, in spite of having been taught the true reason repeatedly, that it is the earth’s shadow that causes the phases. (It is actually the relative positions of the moon, earth, and sun.) The resilience of the misunderstanding among these highly educated people is startling.

Remediation, therefore, must help the student see the misunderstanding clearly in order to successfully challenge it and replace it with the correct understanding.  Unlearning misunderstandings takes work, and remediation is where this work happens.

Articulating the correction. 

Once a student has learned a new skill or has replaced a misunderstanding about a concept, he needs to check to see if he can explain it to someone else.  The act of articulating what he has learned will check and verify how well he understands it. If he can teach a peer or someone at home, if he can write about it in his own words, then it is more likely that the material has been genuinely learned.