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Online Learning

How to Align Your LMS With the Science of Learning

The demands of distance learning will make your Learning Management System (LMS) more important than ever this year. Have you thought about how to align your tech with the best research on how students learn?

July 31, 2020

Distance learning has brought many changes to our daily practice and made many of us feel like rookie teachers all over again. I personally feel like my hard-won, Jedi-teacher skill set has been boxed up and relegated to the storage cupboard, replaced in the online classroom by a newbie version of me.

One foundational tech tool that’s been a lifeline during it all, though—a pillar of certainty in an ever-changing school landscape—is my trusty Learning Management System (LMS).

Whatever permutations of “school” we face in the coming year, LMSs are destined to play an increasingly significant role. We might be in person one week, engaged in a hybrid model the next, fully online soon after that, or bouncing between all these through the course of the year. So we’re going to rely on technology—a lot.

But thinking of your LMS as the solution to all of your distance-learning problems is a mistake. Like any tool we use in the profession, an LMS requires that we match rich, meaningful learning objectives with the appropriate teaching strategy—and that means we should ask ourselves if we’re grounding our choices in the best research on how students learn. After all, the fundamental building blocks of learning don’t change because there’s a powerful new LMS at our disposal: The brain will still be the organ of learning, and each student will still have their brain with them, wherever they are.

We are, in fact, the first generation to begin to understand how the brain learns, works and thrives—so how do we leverage these research insights to use LMSs in the most effective way possible?

Use Your LMS to Support Executive Functions

Planning, organizing mental resources to execute the plan, monitoring progress, and staying on task: The skills that make up executive function are backed by decades of research that suggests they are crucial to success in learning and in life. Since the part of our brain most involved in executive function, the prefrontal cortex, is still undergoing dramatic development into our mid 20s, every K–12 student benefits from structured support with executive-function skills.

It’s important to think of executive function as a suite of skills with great variability. Some students will be good at some of these skills in some contexts, and not so good in others—and they will vary with task, subject, day, sleep, and stress, for example.

The additional challenges of distance learning may mean that students will have a harder time than usual with executive function. How can your LMS help?

  • Establish clear routines and expectations in your LMS early on. Be consistent.
  • Remind your students of routines and expectations regularly and in time, so they hear about them when they need them.
  • Use a getting-acquainted first assignment to help students learn the LMS fundamentals: how to view an assignment, how to submit and resubmit assignments, and how to access and use feedback, for example. Provide class time to ensure that everyone masters this foundational knowledge.
  • Don’t wait until the end of a major assignment or project to use the rubric feature in your LMS. Instead, use rubrics to give and elicit feedback as students progress, and move your students gradually toward using those rubrics independently. The goal here is to train students to monitor and improve their own work, so deemphasize grading in your LMS while the work is in progress.

Avoid “Set It and Forget It” Courses

I once knew an educator who posted every homework assignment for every day of the year in July. The teacher had no idea who would be in their class: What prior knowledge, skills, and interests were the new students coming in with? Where would they struggle? What stories and experiences would they bring with them?

Successful classes need feedback loops, from teacher to student, but also from student to teacher. Tomorrow’s strategies should always be informed by what happened today—what went well, what did not, what unexpected but valuable diversions arose?

  • It is tempting to build a great LMS course and put it aside, job done. Instead, your online class should have a core structure but should evolve as the year unfolds.
  • Use regular low- or no-stakes formative assessment—your LMS’s quiz feature can be set to count for low or no points—and adjust your course regularly based on what you find. What needs more practice than you expected? Is there a prior-knowledge gap that needs addressing? What have students picked up quickly? The goal is to align your teaching with your students’ demonstrated needs.
  • Remember that formative assessment is especially critical during distance learning, when it is harder to read body language to gauge your students’ level of understanding.
  • Find out what motivates your students. What gives them a sense of purpose? What is personally relevant to them? To boost intrinsic motivation, adjust your course, and LMS pages, to include some of these elements.

Do No Harm—Reduce Extraneous Cognitive Load

Our brain has finite cognitive resources—there is only so much thinking, reasoning, and processing we can do at once. During learning, three types of cognitive load are placed on these resources: (1) demands inherent to the complexity of the content being taught, (2) the demands of transferring the content to long-term memory, and (3) extraneous cognitive load caused by the brain’s management of external factors like distractions and ambiguous instructions.

If the extraneous cognitive load is too high, our brain may not have the resources to do the task now or remember it well enough to do later. In other words, your students won’t have truly learned it.

When using your LMS:

  • Use numbered steps and bullet points. Simplify instructions by chunking text with subheadings.
  • Strive for consistency in how you format your assignments, and how your students view, submit, receive feedback on, and submit them.
  • Be mindful of how you integrate other online tools so that students submit work in as few different ways as possible.
  • Design, don’t decorate. Everything you add—images, quotes, links, videos, etc.—should have a purpose. Avoid visual clutter so that you don’t cognitively overload students.
  • Think about font size and readability. Make sure that text is always in high contrast to the background.
  • Sometimes, a video to help explain an assignment or to give feedback could reduce cognitive load.
  • Think to yourself, “Is it better to do this via my LMS? Or is it better with five to 10 minutes of direct instruction?” Your LMS is not always going to be the best tool.

Build Strong Feedback Cycles Directly Into the LMS

Students learn best when they have opportunities to make errors and receive feedback from a knowledgeable source. But it’s wasted effort if students don’t have a chance to respond to the feedback you give and improve their work.

Touch base with other teachers in your subject area, and use your LMS to create a routine where students submit work, receive feedback, act on it, and resubmit their work.

  • Separate feedback from grading. Hide the grade when giving initial feedback comments.
  • Explore the value of oral and video feedback. Many LMSs allow you to easily record and attach audio and video responses. Showing your face and conveying your tone helps manage the emotional impact of the feedback, which helps determine whether any learning will happen from it.
  • Show students mastery and B+ examples of work (e.g., post a couple of B+ assignments on a discussion and ask students to reply with one thing that is good and one thing that is lacking).
  • Remember Dylan WiIiam’s mantra that feedback should be more work for the student than the teacher. Think about how your LMS can help achieve this.

Incorporate Retrieval Practice, Spaced Practice, and Interleaved Practice

The practice of recalling information just as you are starting to forget it is a great way to build durable long-term memory. This is the essence of retrieval practice and spaced practice. Interleaving means building regular retrieval into your flow, so that you are constantly resurfacing key ideas and skills in the form of low- or no-stakes practice assignments.

LMSs can really help:

  • When you create a quiz in your LMS, create two low-stakes duplicates as well. Post one the following week, and one in two to three weeks’ time. 
  • Your LMS probably has a quiz bank feature. Use this to pull a few questions from prior units’ quiz banks into current practice quizzes—focused on the core skills and principles that you want students to master.
  • Create a space within the grading system of your LMS for students to get things wrong, find their mistakes, and fix them. Students need time to practice without the threat of grades, so regularly give them challenging assignments where they get four or six out of 10 wrong.

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