Online Learning

Keys to Success in Distance Learning

Educators from around the country shared their advice about making remote instruction work for middle and high school students.

August 21, 2020
Drazen_ / iStock

We’re all overwhelmed. Last spring, many educators were thrown into distance learning without much training. Add to that worries related to Covid-19, and it’s easy to see why many educators are approaching this year with some apprehension. I’m no exception, so I went to Twitter, a powerful professional learning network, and asked: “If you could give a piece of advice to educators moving into an online classroom for the first time, what would it be?”

While I have personal experience teaching in both blended and fully virtual settings, I’m always seeking continuous improvement of my craft. Online teaching can feel isolating, but the responses from educators across the nation proved the opposite: Community—even virtual—is powerful. I’m grateful for the educators who took a moment to share their pearls of wisdom with me, and I hope the gently curated information below can help you, too, as we navigate our new reality.

General Advice

To help our students, we must plan ahead as much as possible. Part of that is making sure that all apps and links work properly and directions are clearly written. Creating multimodal tutorial videos with captions may assist with that. The fewer clicks it takes to get to a task, the better.

Our learning management system (LMS) design should have consistent layouts and provide clear communication, especially covering how students are to format and submit assignments. Coordinating with other educators and administrators in your building can help to create a streamlined LMS and maintain consistency when it comes to student communication and expectations. Synchronous live sessions work exceptionally well for workshopping and advising, but it’s important to always have a plan for those who may not be able to attend a live session.

During distance learning in the spring, maintaining contact with all students often proved difficult. Creating a robust spreadsheet with contact information for all of your students, including their caregivers’ email addresses and phone numbers, allows you to easily track communications and tell if someone has dropped off the radar.

Key takeaways:

  • Be aware that young people sleep in, care for siblings, or work late hours—just because they do not show up for your daytime Zoom doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t expect everything to go perfectly. Allow students to see your learning process.

“Don’t forget that there is a student behind the screen. There’s a reason why they may not be engaged or not want to be on video. Strike a balance between having compassion while keeping them accountable.” (@katiewuedu)

A Focus on Belonging

Distance learning can be challenging when it comes to building relationships. You can counter that by spending the first few weeks getting to know your students as you would in the classroom. Nurture face-to-face interactions via engaging activities that are student centered.

Caregivers also have an important role to play. Seek their feedback—it’s gold. You also want to extend grace to your students and the adults in their lives. Living through a pandemic isn’t a picnic for anyone. Give your students space and time to communicate openly.

Build fun into your online meetings at least once a week. This helps to provide a sense of community. Also, let students have a glimpse of your life outside the classroom. Small, simple things like weekly teacher-update videos allow students to get to know you as a person.

Key takeaways:

  • Emphasize relationship and growth over grades.
  • Stay on camera as much as you can; it helps with relationship building.

“Take more time than you usually would to check in with students to see how they’re feeling and coping. Yes, you might have to cover a bit less content, but these connections are what will allow you to keep persisting when it gets hard.” (@caribarbour)


Last year was like none we have ever experienced. It’s going to take some work to get students up to speed. But now is not the time to harp on testing, particularly the high-stakes variety. It is a good idea to administer low-stakes assessments to determine students’ progress toward mastery. You can use the results to establish small-group videoconferences for follow-up instruction. Try to make time for one-on-one interaction if possible. You’ll want to make sure that some of the work you assign is offline. Students and teachers can become demotivated after staring at a screen for hours on end.

Creating a class routine and, when possible, opportunities for students to use technology to collaborate will help put students in a position to succeed. A routine helps provide a sense of normalcy, and group work gives your learners some much-needed socialization. Using discussion boards allows you to model and practice good communication skills. Icebreakers give students something to look forward to while you are taking attendance. You can use these to launch synchronous classes to increase engagement as well. An opening question in the chat box can serve as a good jumping-off point for synchronous discussions.

To help your students stay organized, put work in weekly folders. Micro lessons on specific themes also help learners to stay focused.

As much as you can, provide students with choice and differentiation. Survey your students frequently to get feedback on how things are going. And be prepared to slow down. Everything will take twice as long. You won’t cover nearly as much, and that’s OK.

Key takeaways:

  • Don’t try to do all the things—focus on a few solid activities and lessons, and give opportunities for discussion and questions. Less is more.
  • Have a plan B for online lessons and a plan C for tech issues.

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Filed Under

  • Online Learning
  • Classroom Management
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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