An Easy Technique for Teaching Students to Identify Critical Content

An Easy Technique for Teaching Students to Identify Critical Content

Today’s students need to know how to accept ownership of their own learning. An educator’s job becomes much easier when students can take control of their progress; but how, exactly, can you teach that?

The Learning Sciences International Essentials for Achieving Rigor series of instructional guides helps to answer this question. The first book, Identifying Critical Content: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Know What is Important, drills down seven easy-to-implement techniques for teaching students how to identify critical content.

Do Your Students Know Which Content is Most Important to Learn?

To succeed academically, students need to be able to determine which content is critical, why it’s important, how it connects to their existing knowledge, and when it will inform their future learning. In turn, today’s educators need sound strategies to help them teach this increasingly important skill.

One of the seven key strategies is to verbally cue the critical content. In other words, tell the students what is critical. If you’ve taught a lesson, and your students still don’t seem to have a firm grasp of what was most important to learn, you can execute verbal cuing. To do this effectively, you:

  1. Directly, succinctly, and assertively articulate the important information. Put yourself in your students’ place, and word it in a way that makes the message very clear, identifying the central idea and a few supporting details.
  2. Use your voice to signal when you’re delivering critical content. To help students focus most keenly on the crucial information, raise or lower your voice for a few sentences. If it helps, you may opt to practice this first, recording yourself as you perfect your implementation of this strategy.
  3. Give students time to think. Allowing yourself to pause at key points can help them get into the habit of identifying the critical content on their own.
Examples to Take to Your Classroom

Identifying Critical Content provides a wealth of examples that you can use immediately in your classroom (or, rather, when school starts up again!). It also shows you nonexamples and common mistakes by which teachers often miss the mark.

The authors draw the following example from the Common Core State Standards for elementary school students. Begin with listening to others and identify two pieces of critical information about that skill. Change the pitch of your voice wherever you see bold text below to indicate that critical content is about to be delivered.

Good morning, class. Today, we are going to learn how to listen. One important thing about listening is: you do not talk when you are listening. The second important thing about listening is: you should look at the person who is talking to you. You are listening to me right now. I can tell because you are not talking, and you are looking at me.

Then, teach the remainder of the lesson, but ask some students to demonstrate the two critical components of listening: not talking, and looking at the speaker.

Avoid These Common Mistakes
  • Making broad, general statements that don’t effectively zero-in on the critical content. For example, instructing the class to listen without telling them precisely what that entails.
  • Using verbal cues so frequently that students become confused and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of important information.
  • Pausing frequently or for such long periods that students lose their focus and become unable to determine the critical content.
  • Changing intonation inconsistently, making it difficult for students to detect when the content being delivered is critical.