When online classes exploded in popularity a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Education embarked on an ambitious project: Researchers pored through more than a thousand studies to determine whether students in online classrooms do worse, as well, or better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. They discovered that on average, “students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
But there was a significant caveat: It wasn’t the technology that mattered. In fact, many studies have found that technology actually hinders learning when deployed in a way that doesn't take advantage of the medium. All too often, for example, teachers would take a face-to-face lesson and replicate it online, a costly though understandable approach that rarely led to improvements. The key question for the researchers from the Dept. of Education was whether an online activity served as “a replacement for face-to-face instruction or as an enhancement of the face-to-face learning experience.”
“This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the medium,” the researchers wrote. Online teaching required specialized knowledge, an understanding of the strategies that would allow teachers to adapt technology to suit their pedagogical needs—not the other way around.
Yet the large-scale disruption caused by the pandemic forced millions of teachers to quickly adapt to online teaching, often with little training and preparation. “I feel like a first-year teacher again, only worse,” Justin Lopez-Cardoze, a seventh-grade science teacher told the Washington Post.
So how can teachers enhance the learning experience in online classrooms? We looked over all the research we've read about online learning to find seven high-impact, evidence-based strategies that every teacher should know.
1. Your Virtual Classroom is a Real Learning Space—Keep it Organized
“Students value strong course organization,” explain Swapna Kumar and her colleagues in a 2019 study. They point out that teachers who are new to online instruction are often too focused on content—converting their lectures, presentations, and worksheets into digital format—leaving course design as a secondary consideration.
While “novice instructors have subject-matter expertise, it’s the design that falls short,” Kumar points out, explaining that novice teachers often “don’t know how to organize their materials or set up a design that makes sense” to students.
When students see a well-organized virtual classroom, they’re more engaged, more confident, and more autonomous, says Sarah Schroeder, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. And students who encounter messy online learning environments actually project that judgment onto the teacher; they conclude that the teacher is disorganized more generally.
Here are a few simple tips for organizing your virtual classroom:
- Have a single, dedicated hub where students can go every day to find their assignments, and other crucial announcements.
- Create and articulate the simplest communications plan you can. For example, it may be that students can reach you via text during working hours, and via email after school.
- Consider holding “learn your technology” days with your class to walk through common-use cases, like submitting work or signing on to synchronous lessons.
- Make an extra effort to be clear and concise in your directions, and consider making a short daily video summarizing the day’s objectives. When writing, avoid the dreaded “wall of text” and use numbered lists and short paragraphs with subheadings.
- Get rid of visual clutter. This includes hard-to-read fonts and unnecessary decorations or images.
2. Chunk Your Lessons Into Smaller, Digestible Pieces
In a 2010 study, researchers examined how well high school students learned from an online science curriculum and concluded that on average, online materials “require high mental effort” to process. “Working memory capacity is limited, and a learner can only deal with a few concepts simultaneously,” the researchers explain.
What would normally be a 30-minute activity in a face-to-face classroom should be much shorter in the virtual one. Instead of recording an entire lecture, consider creating several smaller ones, each covering a single key idea. The ideal duration for an instructional video, according to a 2014 study, is about 6 minutes, and researchers recorded steep drop-offs in attention after 9 minutes.
In order to give students additional time to process the material, alternate high- and low-intensity activities, and incorporate brain breaks regularly throughout the school day.
3. The Best Online Teachers Solicit Lots of Feedback
When you’re standing face-to-face with your students, you can usually tell when a lesson’s working. If students are riveted, their eyes light up and their brains are in overdrive. But in a virtual classroom, much of that information is lost.
That’s why the authors of a 2019 study which sought to identify the methods of the best online teachers say that you should regularly “gather student feedback on various aspects of...online courses” in order to identify “what was working or not.”
Unlike formative assessment, which focuses on how well students understand the material, it’s crucial that you also gauge how well students can access your virtual materials, according to the researchers. Most teachers and students are newbies in virtual classrooms, and serious communication and process-oriented issues can go undetected—and fester. Consider using student surveys administered via simple tools like Google Forms to ask questions such as: Are you having any technical problems? Are you able to quickly find and submit your work? Is this virtual classroom easy to navigate?
4. Annotate and Interject to Scaffold Learning
If you’re standing in your classroom and you want students to pay attention to something—perhaps a location on a map or information on a slide—you can use gestures to direct students’ attention. But that context can be hard to reproduce online.
To compensate, use simple annotations like arrows and text labels to provide “visual scaffolding and help direct the users' attention to those aspects that are important in learning materials and help guide learners' cognitive processes,” say the authors of a 2020 study. The researchers demonstrated that students who were shown maps with visual and text cues, like arrows and labels identifying key locations, scored 35 percent higher on a recall test than those exposed to maps with no cues.
Also, strategically interject questions into an instructional video at key points to check for understanding. Questions that prompt critical thinking like “Can you think of any exceptions to this rule?” or that probe for comprehension like “How do you determine momentum from measures of mass and velocity?” not only keep the lesson lively but promote deeper engagement with the material and allow you to assess learning, according to a 2018 study.
5. Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzes are Easy to Do, and Highly Effective
Low- and no-stakes practice tests enhance retention of the material—and students who struggle the most benefit the most from weekly practice quizzes, according to a recent meta-analysis. While online quizzes don’t provide a greater benefit than paper ones, they can be automatically graded, saving hours of work.
You can use popular tools like Kahoot and Quizlet to create online quizzes that are not only fun, but also help students re-process and retain the material better. If you want to boost engagement even further, you can create a Jeopardy! board to gamify your quizzes.
6. Fight The Isolation of Remote Learning by Connecting With Your Students
You’re not just physically separated from your students. As classrooms move online, the psychological and emotional distance also increases, eroding the critical social context that is fertile soil for learning, according to a 2016 study. You’ll need to make special efforts to create a sense of community in your virtual classroom.
“To offset the isolating effects of an online class, teachers can strive to communicate more regularly and more informally with students,” writes Jason Dockter, a professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College in the study. The goal isn’t just to address academic issues, but to demonstrate “that the teacher is personally interested and invested in each student.”
John Thomas, an elementary school teacher, uses daily morning meetings, which can be done both synchronously and asynchronously, to check in with his students. Using Seesaw, he records a greeting that students can respond to and builds in “interactive, engaging activities designed to help our students learn more about themselves and their classmates”—such as sharing a favorite book or the family pet.
Beyond morning meetings, you can adapt many face-to-face activities to work in virtual classrooms:
- Use unstructured time to chat at the beginning of class.
- Try Zoom's "waiting room" feature to welcome kids to class one by one.
- Use breakout rooms to split students into small groups for show-and-tell, two truths and a lie, or other relationship-building exercises.
- At the end of the day, ask students to reflect on their learning with discussion prompts or a closing activity like appreciation, apology, or aha!
- Pose fun questions like “What’s your favorite movie?” in your all-class video tool, or on digital whiteboards like Jamboard or Padlet, and have students share out.
7. Take Care of Yourself
You’re not alone: teacher well-being has experienced a “steep decline” in recent months, with 71% of teachers reporting lower morale levels compared to pre-pandemic levels. As the adage goes, “You can’t serve from an empty cup.” If we want our students to succeed, we need to ensure that our teachers are taken care of. Not only is teacher stress contagious, resulting in higher stress levels for students, but it also passes through as poorer academic performance for students as well.
“In order for any of us to provide that safe, stable, and nurturing environment for the children that we serve, we have to practice self-care so that we can be available,” said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and California’s first surgeon general, in a recent interview with Edutopia. “Please make sure to put your own oxygen mask on and practice real care for yourself so that you can be there for the next generation.”