In a previous post, we discussed the first five principles of effective instruction as outlined in Principles of Instruction by Barak Rosenshine. The guidelines, which are backed up by research in cognitive science, the work of master teachers, and learning strategies, work best in a teacher-led setting.
The online classroom comes with its own set of challenges, particularly for teachers with little experience in this area. That doesn’t mean that we can’t apply these principles online, but they need to be adjusted with the right activities.
5 More principles of effective online instruction
These activities’ requirements are a video conferencing tool that preferably integrates with your learning management system (LMS) and basic knowledge of creating online lessons, which the LMS already enables teachers to do.
You don’t need to add any more apps, but it can help switch things up a bit and use some subject-specific tools. For example, Geography teachers can use interactive online maps, and STEAM teachers can rely more on dedicated tools.
Read more: How to S.T.E.A.M. up distance learning
More online interaction to check student understanding
There is a difference between asking, “do you have any questions so far?” and “can you summarize this paragraph?” The first might not elicit a response, especially if the topic is new and students don’t have enough background knowledge to understand what they don’t know. Plus, some of them are shy. If they don’t ask questions, it doesn’t mean that they’ve understood the material.
The most effective teachers check for understanding all the time. They also anticipate misconceptions since they’ve had many chances to observe the common errors students make when they learn something for the first time.
In the online classroom, you can:
- Ask more questions such as: “Can you summarize X?”, “Can you explain out loud how you solved the problem?”;
- Divide the class into small groups (see Zoom breakout rooms) and have Teaching Assistants work with them to check for understanding;
- Organize debates in which students have to defend their position (debate assignments). It’s easier to spot misunderstandings and where they need some guidance;
- If you have many students attending and can’t divide them into smaller groups, ask them to use the chat function of the video conferencing tool to answer your questions.
This approach is not a significant departure from classroom teaching, but it takes more effort to interact with students and ask the right questions. This step helps you identify what needs to be re-taught, so students don’t start new lessons with many knowledge gaps.
Aim for a high success rate
A high success rate means that students’ answers are mostly correct — around 80% of the time. It can be challenging to assess their responses in a live meeting since you also have to teach, and sometimes there are frequent interruptions. One way to make sure that they understand the content is by taking a mastery-oriented approach to the online classroom.
This requires setting up lessons in your LMS that students can access independently (see this as a replacement for seatwork).
In the online classroom, you can:
- Provide plenty of models during live instruction/synchronous online lessons;
- Since that time is limited, give students more models and explanations in your asynchronous lessons (in the LMS);
- Tag these lessons with competencies, which will track whether students access these lessons or not;
- As students go through the content, add quizzes to check their understanding;
- The LMS analytics function will show you which lessons or concepts students already understand and which ones need to be re-explained;
- Go over the material in the next live session to make sure that students get it right.
This is a relatively simple way to get a higher success rate and close learning gaps. All you have to do is use the LMS analytics function to see the progress of each student.
Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks
Students need plenty of models and examples to be able to practice. Online learning emphasizes the importance of student ownership, but that shouldn’t mean leaving them entirely to their own devices. When it comes to challenging tasks, students can get easily overwhelmed, so they need scaffolds.
In the online classroom, you can:
- Make use of micro learning to break longer lessons and tasks into smaller chunks;
- Offer aids such as suggestion boxes and hints throughout the lessons. These can look like a simple table that you insert in the regular lesson to guide them;
- Leave plenty of examples of dos and don’ts - if they’re asked to write an essay, show them what a good paper looks like;
- Start each lesson by going over pre-taught notions to make sure students understand what the task asks them to do - if they’re asked to write a presentation on volcanoes, start the assignment introduction by reminding them of related notions such as magma, lava, Earth crust, ash;
- Anticipate errors that students frequently make and talk about them before they happen. Here is a great example of anticipating Math errors, and you can find more similar resources online.
Scaffolding is a way to make sure they are ready to solve challenging tasks. This type of practice benefits all students, no matter how advanced they are already.
Make room for independent practice
Once your students have had enough practice in online sessions, independent practice is the next step towards better learning. It’s a moment to solidify knowledge by over-learning, ensuring that they become fluent in a skill.
Teachers can assign seatwork tasks and supervise students in a classroom setting, but they have to get more creative with their online methods.
The first thing to do is make sure that they have had enough guided practice before assigning homework. Only give out tasks that contain skills and knowledge you’ve already gone over and practiced during the online session.
Moreover, in the online classroom, you can:
- Assign students into smaller groups (breakout rooms) where they practice together — and explain concepts to each other. It’s still “independent” because you can switch between rooms to see what they’re doing, but you do not entirely guide it;
- Use a variety of assignment types for independent practice - taking just quizzes gets old;
- Encourage students to post their questions in forums, chat, and groups if they get stuck — although homework is seen as individual only, it’s better to get hints and help from you and their peers than being unsure of how to proceed;
- Use virtual flashcards to help them with factual knowledge and prepare for graded tests.
If your students are already familiar with effective study strategies, this step is much more manageable. If they’re younger, they will probably need a parent or guardian’s help first, but only for practice. For example, parents can read the flashcards, and students can answer.
Do frequent reviews of the material
Usually, teachers feel pressured to cover as much as they can in one sitting. However, discussing one topic and moving on to others doesn’t leave much time for practice. We all know that practice strengthens connections in the brain and how the memory works. If students cram for tests or don’t get to practice enough, knowledge doesn’t get transferred into long-term memory, which is another way to say that they forget what they’ve learned.
Aside from guided and independent practice, here is what you can do for your online class:
- Revisit the material, allocating five minutes for review at the beginning of each class, as discussed in step 1. here;
- Give out plenty of resources, such as videos, infographics, written content which students can revisit;
- Whenever needed, link to that resource and ask students to review concepts;
- Review older concepts in practice quizzes, asking students to build on their knowledge from previous lessons.
If using competency-based learning, your LMS can notify you whenever a student struggles to master a skill or concept, in which case you can take action and recommend resources to support their practice.
Most practices can be adapted for the online classroom, but it’s particularly important to adapt those that are evidence-based. As students return to physical classrooms, certain elements can still be in place, including online lessons that students can review anytime, checking for understanding through competency-based learning, and independent practice that takes place online.