HOTS: Helping Low Achievers in Grades 4-8

A unique program succeeds by making students understand and use what they learn.

by Stanley Pogrow. Principal. November 1996

Chances are, if your school has a significant population of low achieving students, you can find a number of effective remediation programs designed to help children in grades K-3—but very few for those in grades 4-8. Indeed, if your school follows the national pattern, you probably experience the heartbreak of seeing your Title I students and those with learning disabilities make substantial gains in the early grades and then begin to backslide, regardless of how much extra help they receive. An exception is the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) program, successfully used in about 2,000 schools around the country.

What Is HOTS?

HOTS is a creative program designed to build the thinking skills of educationally disadvantaged students in grades 4-7. It combines the use of computers, drama, Socratic dialogue, and a detailed curriculum to stimulate thinking processes. Computers are not used to present content, but rather to intrigue students and get them involved. Drama, in the form of teacher play-acting—sometimes in costume—also stimulates students' interest and curiosity. Some days the teacher may present a lesson as a mysterious situation for which the students' help is needed.

However, HOTS is foremost a program built on Socratic dialogue, creative and logical conversation between teacher and students. While most teachers ask simple questions of educationally disadvantaged students, and are content with one-word responses, HOTS teachers are trained to ask questions that require students to explain and elaborate their answers at length.

At first, most students are resistant to expressing their ideas. The computer helps overcome this resistance by building a bridge between the familiar passive visual learning offered by TV, and the active verbal learning expected in HOTS and the regular classroom. It provides an interactive means for students to test their ideas before verbalizing them. Over time, the teacher's expectations, combined with interesting program activities, result in a highly conversational environment in which students begin to discover that they are good at thinking and explaining ideas. With this confidence, they embrace intellectual challenges rather than run from them.

The HOTS curriculum consists of detailed, 35 minute, daily lessons that coordinate computer activities with class conversations, and ensure that teachers ask the kinds of questions that enhance brain development and thinking skills. The key types of thinking skills that the curriculum is designed to develop are metacognition (the ability to systematically apply and articulate strategies) and generalization (the ability to apply learning beyond a specific context). Students without these skills see everything around them as either random occurrences, without rhyme or reason, or as things that are true only in the context in which they are learned.

The HOTS learning activities involve tasks that are complex but fun, and students' success at these tasks leads to their realization that thinking and persevering can accomplish the seemingly impossible. And though the HOTS program is a pullout divorced from the formal classroom curriculum, there is a surprising transfer of success to basic learning—as well as to thinking skills and classroom grades. Title I and special education students in the HOTS program have made twice the gains on standardized reading and math tests than the national average.

A recent study (Darmer 1995) showed simultaneous improvement by HOTS students in six categories: basic skills, writing skills, metacognition skills, grade point average, key IQ components, and ability to solve new problems. The HOTS students outperformed a comparison group of students in each of these areas, even though the comparison students spent more time in the classroom.

Getting Results in Grades 4-8

Our research indicates that the best way to help educationally disadvantaged students learn content after the third grade is not to re-teach it, but to spend 35 minutes a day developing the general thinking skills that enable students to make sense of what they are taught when they are taught it. For example, if students are having trouble with math after the third grade, the answer is not to give them extra help but to develop a general sense of problem solving and understanding.

The greatest problem for students after the third grade is an inability to construct the types of understanding necessary to deal with the more difficult curricular concepts that begin in the fourth grade. Many students don't even understand what "understanding" is, and our research suggests that lacking a sense of understanding is the primary learning problem for approximately 80 percent of Title I students. Students who don't have this sense can learn and memorize factual content, but can't process or generalize what they have learned. This explains, for example, why students can show very large gains on vendor-supplied tests of computer-based integrated learning systems, but little improvement on standardized tests. They lack understanding to apply their knowledge in a different problem-solving context.

How Principals Can Help

Providing help with specific content is appropriate for K-3 students, but in grades 4-8 it only inhibits learning. Therefore, principals need to develop different educational approaches and different delivery mechanisms to help students in the middle grades. It may be that K-3 students benefit most from in-class help, while those in grades 4-7 may need pullout support.

To successfully implement a HOTS program in grades 4-8, the principal's most important task is to select an outstanding teacher, one who is bright, open-minded, organized, and likes to engage students in Socratic discussions. It is also critical for the principal to support the teacher and the program. The principal can, for example, provide substitutes so that classroom teachers can observe HOTS instruction and see students who do poorly in their classrooms discussing, reflecting, and solving complex problems. The experience may encourage classroom teachers to think differently about the ability of such students, and to work more creatively with them.

Careful student selection and scheduling is also critical to the success of the HOTS program, which provides guidelines for this purpose. Not all Title I students or those with identified learning disabilities can benefit from a HOTS program; some will need other forms of help. In addition, HOTS can be part of a schoolwide improvement plan to provide quality instruction for all students.

The success of HOTS in producing learning gains with traditionally lowachieving students in grades 4-7 demonstrates that these students have great intellectual potential; that they want to be successful in school; and that the right educational approach in the hands of a good teacher, and with the support of a good principal, can unleash this ability.


Darmer, Mary Ann. Developing Transfer and Metacognition in Eductationally Disadvantaged Students: Effects of the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) Program. Unpublished dissertation. University of Arizona 1995.

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