5 Common Teaching Mistakes That Stunt Student Growth

5 Common Teaching Mistakes That Stunt Student Growth

As an education consultant observing instruction across content areas, grade bands, and schools, I have seen A LOT of instruction, both good and bad. While most teachers teach from a place of caring and compassion, the simple mistakes that I see teachers repeatedly making are undermining the overall impact that they could be having on learning especially when one considers the cumulative effect of poor teaching practices, across multiple teachers, on any one student.


Don’t get tangled up in this trap. Start upping your teaching game by canceling the following five teaching practices:

Using The Standard As The Lesson Objective

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I sometimes see teachers using specific Common Core State Standards as the learning objective for an entire unit of study. For example, I once saw a fourth-grade teacher use “Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning (CCSS ELA-LITERACY L.4.5)” as the learning objective across many days of learning. This is an academically rigorous standard to be sure. However, as there are many types of figurative language, how does the teacher know they are meeting the precise intent of this standard unless they break down this standard into its component parts? Could each part then be a lesson/daily objective?

To answer, I suggest teachers draw upon the work of Larry Ainsworth in unwrapping standards. In a nutshell, Ainsworth’s model for deconstructing standards has educators identifying each concept (nouns) and skill (verbs) embedded within each standard to ensure that the complete intent of the standard is understood. More about the model can be found here.

Dumbing Down Objectives

Math teacher lectures his students

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My blood boiled over one day when a teacher told me that his students could not possibly meet learning objectives and/or success criteria that asked students to synthesize, evaluate, and/or create since his students were lower functioning. I have no doubt that this teacher was correct in saying that some of his students would, indeed, struggle in meeting higher-level success criteria. However, what then was this teacher doing to scaffold the learning so his lower-functioning students could succeed in meeting such objectives? First, develop lesson objectives with high achievement in mind so that high-performing students are not held back by low-performing students. Then, consider the scaffolds—such as one-on-one and small group direct instruction—that will be provided to lower-achieving students so they, too, can achieve rigorous objectives.

In developing rigorous learning objectives, those that place the cognitive lift on students, I recommend teachers use two tools—a Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Wheel and Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix. The DOK Wheel will help educators to craft learning objectives inclusive of increasing levels of student challenge from a DOK Level One (Student Recall) through to a DOK Level Four (Extended Student Thinking). The Matrix will help teachers to compare their learning objectives, as currently written, to examples of those at varying levels of cognitive complexity so that these objectives may be rewritten to reflect higher levels of cognitive complexity. The Matrix is available for both humanities and math/science content areas.

Bonus Hack for Writing Objectives: When teachers write the learning objective into their guided practice slide decks, it is often only on the front slide. How can students refer to it/follow along if they can’t see it? Instead, include the objective on all slides or, better yet, write it on the class board.

Talking Non-Stop

Teacher leads a class discussion

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Less is more. If a teacher’s guided practice drones on and on, as their coach, I sometimes ask if the teacher can call on a student to repeat and/or summarize what was said. Sometimes the student can but, other times, as the student begins to explain, they become confused. This is precisely why I ask this of teachers. If students are to retain information, research shows that there need to be breaks in long lectures. Chunk the learning. Allow a quick turn and talk so students can process learning before proceeding to ask students to repeat and/or summarize information.

On a related note, teachers should stop asking “Any questions?” as a matter of pro forma politeness before speeding along on the bullet train that is their lecture. Most students will not admit that they do not understand something unless it is teased from them. Instead, cold call and use other strategies such as polling, individual whiteboards, and signaling cards. And, when teachers do stop talking to ask questions of students, they can ensure that those questions are cognitively rigorous using this question stem tool.

Telling Students To Take Notes Instead Of Showing Them How

Student takes notes during class

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If I had a quarter for each time I heard “take notes.” What does this mean? One of the practices in which I engage when observing classes is to look over at what students are doing and the notes they are taking; the level of detail and amount of relevant information can vary widely. Instead, a good practice is to adopt a standard note-taking format like Cornell Notes. In adopting a standard format, teachers can scaffold notes, build in essential questions, and have students summarize their learning—all best practices discussed in this article. Further, students can assess the quality of not only their notes but that of peers and use these notes in the development of student-generated study guides.

One scaffolding technique that I suggest teachers use with Cornell Notes is to include unit-related vocabulary with which students may be struggling and/or may not yet have been exposed. Often, when students leave questions blank on assessments, it can be because students do not understand what is being asked of them because of the vocabulary being used. In addition to highlighting key vocabulary on Cornell Notes, consider expanding a student’s knowledge of related vocabulary through the use of varied Vocabulary CODE activities as well as tiered vocabulary in each content area.

Taking Class Time To Have Students Complete Worksheets

Students complete a worksheet during class

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A standard practice that I have seen, when teachers are afraid to release control, is for students to complete worksheets independently and silently in class. First, teachers should consider if work needs to be done in class or, after modeling one or two examples of what students are to do, the rest of the worksheet can be done at home so that class time can be used for discussion of the work. Learning together builds creativity, blends individual strengths, and enhances the sense of collective ownership.

However, teachers are wise in anticipating where learning can go wrong, and there can be many reasons why students may not be focused during student-to-student-based activities. Still, the solution for most attention problems resides with the teacher. If students are unfocused and discussing unrelated matters during group work, give them the questions to discuss up front. If students can’t engage in discussions with one another appropriately, give them discussion/accountable talking stems. If some students are doing all the work while their teammates stand about idly, assign individual roles within each group as well as have students self-assess their level of contribution as well as peer assess that of their teammates. Also, provide exemplars of quality work and allow students some choice in how they demonstrate proficiency (the product) beyond that of a worksheet. There are also varied discussion protocols that can be used to differentiate the process through which students talk collaboratively about the content.

Word To The Wise

Teacher helps a student with an assignment

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These are, without a doubt, some of the most common mistakes that I have seen educators make regardless of the amount of time that they have been in the profession. I, myself, was not immune from making these same missteps in the classroom. Still, being forewarned is forearmed and hopefully an awareness of these common pratfalls, along with a knowledge of the tools that can be used to navigate around them, will help ensure that not a moment of class time is wasted to inefficiency.

Please feel free to reach out to the author at John Schembari, Ed.D. | LinkedIn.

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