To be successful, remote instruction requires a lot of the same things any instruction does: clarity, review, checking for understanding, prompt feedback. But distance adds additional challenges, and these tips can help.
The sudden transition to at-home schooling has found schools and districts at different levels of preparedness. Some are simply sending home paper packets, while others are ensuring students have devices, WiFi, and coherent online curricula. A few high-achieving charter networks, like Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, are not only setting up plans for their own students but giving the public free access. Some high-quality curriculum providers are also providing free online materials.
But even in the best of circumstances, remote instruction can intensify challenges inherent in face-to-face settings. Research has shown that online learning doesn’t generally work as well as traditional instruction—and that students who are already struggling are likely to be harmed the most. Still, in recent weeks some experts and practicing teachers have offered pointers that can help remote instruction be as effective as possible.
1. Get students into the habit of participating.
The initial challenge is just motivating students to show up or complete assignments. According to the New York Times, some teachers are reporting that fewer than half of their students are regularly participating in remote learning. In Los Angeles, a third of high school students aren’t logging in. The problem is particularly pronounced among students from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, in part because they often lack reliable access to the internet.
Harry Fletcher-Wood, an educator based in the U.K.—where schools have also switched to remote learning—recommends a few steps that can help motivate recalcitrant students. First, he says, make goals and expectations crystal clear. Teachers should specify when students should show up and exactly what tasks they need to complete. Playing on kids’ FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) can help. Emphasize how many other students are showing up, or—if that figure is dismal—at least highlight a positive trend (“More students than ever completed the assignment”). It also helps to ensure that students have a clear plan for when and where they’ll engage in schoolwork. Ideally, participating in remote learning will become a habit—although that may take time; on average, Fletcher-Wood says, it takes 66 days for a habit to form.
2. Focus on content, not comprehension skills.
Once students show up, the next question is what to teach. At the elementary level, some districts are having teachers stick to reading and math, making social studies and science optional—the same approach many schools take in face-to-face settings. If possible, teachers should resist that pressure. Hours spent practicing reading comprehension “skills and strategies,” disconnected from content, are largely wasted. Focusing on topics in social studies and science—and spending at least a couple of weeks on a topic—is much more likely to build the knowledge and vocabulary that are vital to comprehension.
Rather than having students practice “finding the main idea” on disconnected passages, it’s best if teachers ask questions that get kids to think deeply about nocturnal animals or the solar system—or whatever substantive content is included in the curriculum. And before leaping to questions that require analysis, teachers need to check that students have a literal understanding of the subject matter by asking, for example, “What is a nocturnal animal? … How are they different from other kinds of animals?”
One possible way to get students interested, and build their knowledge, is to teach about the current pandemic. “They’ve never been more engaged than when we analyzed the flattening-the-curve graph,” a 4th-grade teacher, Callie Lowenstein, wrote on Twitter—and offered links to materials. But teachers may want to evaluate their students’ levels of anxiety before delving into this pandemic or others. A high school history teacher who thought about doing a unit on the bubonic plague told the Times he reconsidered after learning that the mother of one of his students had developed COVID-19 symptoms.
3. Keep it simple.
Simple, clear directions and expectations are always important, but never more so than in a situation where teachers can’t easily gauge when students are confused. Some considerations are logistical: try not to use too many different apps or platforms or Google docs—or different classroom routines. On the substantive front, it’s important to be cautious about introducing new material. Distance learning generally works best for review. Teachers need to concentrate on reinforcing what students have already learned, lest they forget it.
4. Connect new content to old and provide examples.
Of course, given that this situation is likely to go on for a while, teachers will inevitably need to bring in new material. As with classroom teaching, it’s best to connect new information to what students have already learned—or, if they’ve forgotten the context that will help them understand and remember the new material, let them know where they can find it. As education expert Paul Kirschner has said, “The most important factor in learning new things is what one already knows.”
When introducing a new concept or skill, teachers should provide students with examples. They might show kids a math problem that is already worked out or a video in which they demonstrate how to solve it, explaining what they’re doing and why.
5. Dole out new information in brief doses.
It’s always best to limit the amount of new information students are getting within any one session. That’s even more true in a remote situation. According to some research, student engagement drops significantly when videos last longer than nine to twelve minutes. Rather than a 45- or 60-minute online class, provide segments of no more than 15 or 20 minutes, especially if the subject matter is new or students are younger. Breaking up the information and delivering it in shorter sessions—and returning to the same points later on—takes advantage of what psychologists call the “spacing effect” or distributed practice, which boosts learning.
6. Make online learning as interactive as possible.
Students need opportunities not just to listen or read but to actively process the information being presented. Some platforms allow teachers to give brief quizzes and get immediate results. Even if teachers don’t have that option, having students quiz themselves periodically or answer questions about when, what, where, or why something happened is a form of retrieval practice, which helps students absorb and remember the material. One high school English teacher, Jasmine Lane, makes recordings of herself reading a class text aloud and periodically asks students to pause the video to respond to a question she’s posed. Ideally, teachers will not only ask questions but hear or see answers—and if they’re wrong, either provide students with the right answer or guide them to figure it out.
7. Balance synchronous and asynchronous learning.
Remote learning can be done either synchronously, with everyone online at the same time, or asynchronously, with students accessing the same lesson at different times. Synchronous lessons are harder to engineer and don’t allow as much time for practice, but it’s important to include at least some time when an entire class is online together. Not only does that allow for prompt teacher feedback, it enables teachers and students to maintain connections and feel part of a group—which is more important now than ever. And with younger students, asking parents to supervise asynchronous learning can be a disaster.
Even if it’s impossible to implement all of these tips, bearing them in mind can help. And as we learn more about how remote learning works, we can try to do it better—because even after the current crisis is over, we may need to do it again.