N = 1: Are We Serving the Student in Front of Us?

Last night was the first night of my Reading Diagnostics class at MGH Institute of Health Professions, where I am a student in the Reading Specialist program.

Our professor presented a fascinating concept to us: N = 1.

She said that, when teachers complete academic assessments and instructional plans with a student who we are serving, the sample size is 1. Just 1.

Although researchers utilize larger sample sizes to study trends among groups, those who directly serve children must focus on serving each individual student in the classroom or clinical setting. This means that, although some classroom techniques or clinical practices may serve most students, it really only matters if the services provided to a student work for that particular individual.

She likened the practice to doctors selecting a medicine for a particular patient. Just because a certain type of prescription works for most patients does not mean that the particular medicine will work for the one patient who we must consider as an individual entity, in and of himself or herself.

N=1 makes me feel validated in my approach to students.

I have difficulty examining trends in data about my students – I prefer to take the time to look at each child individually.

I applaud success, and I become very concerned if a child is not thriving, even for a moment on a particular day. I  analyze the many factors involved, and I often follow up with a conversation with that student. Did you eat breakfast? Lunch? Did you sleep last night? Did something happen in the hallway? the bathroom? in homeroom? Did you understand the directions? How do you feel? Did the lesson make sense to you? 

I have learned that I cannot assume. There are many reasons for students to have a “bad day” or a “bad class” at school. My job is to optimize the classroom factors I can control at school for that student and to let the student know that I will never give up on him or her no matter what. Who cares if something works for most students? Different things will work for each and every child in front of us, and we need to take an individualized approach to provide a bridge to  progress and growth.

N must equal 1.

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