6 Strategies for Successful Distance Learning
Teachers can create an environment in which both they and their students feel empowered for remote teaching and learning.
If you’re reading this and you’re an educator, congratulations: You have survived the 2019–20 school year. As educators, we now look to the fall with trepidation. We’re not sure if we’ll be teaching remotely, in person, or some hybrid of the two. Sadly, I cannot answer that question for you. However, I can propose an instructional approach or philosophy that will empower your online teaching, and the principles are applicable to a classroom environment as well.
This approach comes from my 14 years of classroom experience, 11 years of virtual instruction, mentoring developing teachers, and coaching others along the way. I call it the Success First Approach, and it focuses on the premise that successful learning and instruction can occur only when both teacher and student feel empowered. An empowering environment, whether remote or in person, often includes several of the strategies discussed below.
6 Strategies for Success in Distance Learning
1. Be authentic: Simply put, teachers need to be true to themselves and also true to their students. Attempting to incorporate another teacher’s style will not always work. Likewise, refusing to ever incorporate learners’ unique characteristics will lead to instruction that’s a struggle due to lack of motivation and interest. Don’t feel that you need to reinvent your teaching persona to be effective. You can use approaches that bring you joy as an educator—and if you can find a way to incorporate the interests of your students, the odds of having a successful environment improve.
Kim, a new teacher, learned the need to be authentic with her students and to use their interests to help achieve her end goal. (Teachers’ names have been changed, and some details about them have been generalized.) She was passionate about using art to promote discussion in the classroom. After multiple failed attempts to have her students discuss classical pieces of art, she realized that the entire class was obsessed with video games. To capture their interest, she had them compare and contrast the imagery in those games and used that as a focus of debate and discussion.
2. Be familiar: As educators, we sometimes want to try all the good resources we see. But this can be overwhelming for us and our students. The same goes with assessments and activities. There are many good ideas out there, and it can be hard not to experiment with them all.
So how do you strike a balance between trying new resources and not overwhelming your students? At the beginning of the year, poll your students to find out how many of them have used different tools: Flipgrid, Google Forms, Padlet, Parley, etc. Ask them to rate their levels of frustration with the tools as well. This lets you know if a tool is new to students or will meet with a lot of resistance. The same can be done with formative and summative assessments—the types of which will vary according to your content.
The point of these polls is not to avoid anything that the students have found frustrating. It’s to find the tools or modes of assessment where students have felt successful. These can be balanced with other tools and/or serve as alternative options to other activities.
3. Be simple: When it comes to remote learning, simplicity is often key. The goal should be for all instruction to be as easy to access as possible for both the students and the teacher. Tasks can be technologically simple to complete but still require depth of knowledge.
Dan is a high school math teacher, and instead of assigning students work in an online program (which requires multiple steps to log in), he posts problems to solve in his online classroom. Students complete them, take a picture, and submit. This is far easier for students than having to learn a new program. Math teachers can also have students record themselves explaining how they solved a problem. This ensures that they know how it should be solved and requires deep understanding.
Keeping things simple can also improve accessibility for learners who don’t have good access to Wi-Fi and computers. A simple process can allow them to access their work and complete it on a smartphone or a smart device if a computer is not readily available.
4. Be flexible: Flexible instruction means that students are given the opportunity to express their understanding in a variety of means and that there is not one fixed way to accomplish the task. They’re given choices and options to show understanding. This gives students a sense of choice and control in the process. From an instructional standpoint, it increases the odds that the work will be finished and that it will be of high quality.
How can this realistically be done? Laura assigned students chapters to read during remote learning. After each chapter, they had to show that they understood what happened. They could make a video to explain it, they could write a timeline, and/or they could give bullet points. These could be done using Google Docs, or students could write their answer and take a picture. In the classroom, flexibility looks very similar in the sense that students are always given some sense of choice and multiple means to show understanding.
5. Be organized: Instruction is clearly outlined for students and anyone who’s supporting them. There should be a logic to the sequence of the tasks and why they’re being done. Creating infographics and flow charts reduces the cognitive load of too much text. Then, you can insert hyperlinks into the documents that allow the students to click to access material.
Trevor, an experienced teacher, suggests having someone else look at your remote setup through the lens of a student to make sure it’s clear. It’s better if the person doesn’t teach the same content area and even better if they’re not a teacher at all. This ensures that the material is organized in a way that makes sense.
6. Be concise: Along the same vein, you should clearly communicate what needs to be done in a way that your target audience can understand. Why is this so critical? Students are overloaded with directions and assignments that must be completed. When we are with them personally, we can verbally reinforce what needs to be done, but this is not always possible in the remote format. Therefore, it becomes even more essential to keep instructions extremely clear. This may also be particularly important as the student could have someone assisting them who is not familiar with the wording used in the classroom.
To assist with communication, video explanations of tasks are often useful, as are flow charts to emphasize critical steps. Using bullet points to reduce the cognitive load of reading excessive amounts of text helps as well. Julia, a high school teacher, has her students do project-based learning. While giving written instructions, she also takes a video of herself explaining the directions and reviewing them. Often, her students view this more readily than the instructions themselves.
Not all of these strategies will be possible with every activity, assessment, or assignment. Yet, the more of them you use, the greater the chance that both you and your students will be successful.