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How to be a Highly Effective Teacher from a Distance

COVID-19 has forced us to confront completely unprecedented challenges in education, including how to implement a distance teaching model, and many of us will face those same challenges again at some point during the 2020 - 21 academic year. Many teachers will start the school year in a distance teaching model. The good news is that teaching our students online during the Spring of 2020 has spawned thousands of classroom laboratories of experimentation and prompted remarkable creativity. Science Outside would like to be your distance learning partner and help you teach more effectively and creatively than ever before.

Let’s start by identifying the challenges of distance learning:

  • First, it’s an enormous challenge to be a highly effective distance teacher if your students don’t have access to the Internet or devices capable of effectively utilizing the internet at home. Fortunately, most school districts have addressed this issue at this point. However, for those who teach in districts that have not, it’s an enormous hurdle.

  • Second, distance learning makes it much more challenging for students to perform hands-on learning activities and typically results in even more screen time for your students.

  • The third problem is distance learning makes it difficult to keep tabs on whether students are actually working.

  • Fourth, distance learning presents challenges with regard to maintaining academic integrity.

  • The final and perhaps greatest challenge is how do we facilitate online instruction as teachers and students alike are being distracted and disrupted in their homes during the teaching and learning process?

How will you face these challenges if you are charged with distance teaching? How can you use case studies to increase the effectiveness of your distance teaching?

First, know without reservation that it can be done.

Let’s address the internet access issue. This is a huge hurdle to overcome. It is almost always the case that students who don’t have internet access qualify for delivered school lunches. The best idea we have heard so far from those who are dealing with this challenge is this: If students don’t have access to the internet, send paper copies of assignments and recordings of synchronous class sessions home along with their school-provided lunch. This idea is based upon the mail-based correspondence courses, perhaps the original distance-learning model, which were first developed in the 1800s to give rural citizens access to a university education. It’s not optimal when compared to the opportunities the internet provides us today, but if they could facilitate correspondence courses, so can we.

If both you and your students have internet access, be sure you have a strong internet connection. If you have a strong WiFi connection and it works, there’s no need to change what you are doing. If you are experiencing low-quality audio and/or video, the most common solution is to hardwire directly to your modem. It works wonders and you can purchase an ethernet cable up to 100 feet in length for less than $30. Depending upon your device, you might also need an adapter to connect it. In our view, school districts should provide 50 foot (long enough to reach most places in most homes) ethernet cables to their teachers and students or reimburse them for their expenses. If they don’t, teachers can save the receipt and apply the expense to their $250 Teacher Tax Credit on their 2021 income tax return. A hard-wired microphone is another great addition to your hardware setup to improve audio quality.

Start the school year by making a positive connection with your students. Invest time and effort in creating relationships, starting on the first day of school. Students want to be seen and to know that their teachers care about them as people, not just their learning. If your students feel like you are more concerned about the standardized test scores they produce for your principal than you are about them, they will think less of you as a teacher and will be less invested in your class. Many master teachers plan to address this by starting the year remotely with the following written assignment: In 350 words, tell me about yourself using the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning Framework. The teacher should post their own essay on their website (or mail it home) for their students to use as a model to guide them as they write. To really make the connection, master teachers deliberately demonstrate their commitment to their students with every word and gesture they use throughout the course. If you don’t get to communicate with audio and/or video, it is vital to focus on every word you write. The words will matter far more than you will ever know to a socially isolated student.

Greet your students warmly each time you meet online. Don’t prioritize taking attendance or even starting promptly over a genuinely warm welcome.

Utilize a balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities. Students benefit greatly from face-to-face (virtual or in-person) interaction. They learn most effectively from a person they know and trust with their education, and they listen to their teachers more than we realize. There are countless intangible benefits. Students also need to be granted some autonomy through asynchronous learning activities to utilize the times and spaces available in their home environments that maximize their learning. The brain needs focused attention long enough for the information to enter into the working memory. Distance teaching should seek to avoid cognitive overload by reducing unnecessary stimuli that compete with that attention. We don’t know what is happening in every student's online learning environment, so give them some flexibility to navigate that environment to the best of their ability. One proven highly effective online school model: Keep roughly the same schedule as in-person school, with the first half of the class period conducted much the same way as an in-person class, and the the second half of the class students are working in small groups (ex: breakout rooms) to provide peer support, and the teacher remaining present in the main online video conference room or the teacher circulating to the breakout rooms to monitor student progress and to be available for rapid academic support.

Make time for collaboration and student-to-student discourse, even during virtual or asynchronous instruction. Talking is evidence of thinking. Students benefit greatly from opportunities to share their ideas and respond to peers and teacher feedback in distance learning environments.

Lesson flow is critical. When you have the students in front of you there is a captive audience, when they are at home, it only takes a short break in flow for them to check out. For example, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE with your software platform to ensure smooth transitions between virtual breakout “rooms” and the main online “room” and your ability to shepherd students in an orderly fashion from one learning activity to another. Virtual breakout rooms allow teachers to effectively utilize small group learning structures in an online environment, and even allow teachers to pair students in a hybrid model where some students are in class and the others are at home. The importance of breakout rooms was highlighted so vividly during the spring of 2020 by teachers using Zoom, BlackBoard, and many other video conferencing platforms that most platforms which did not previously support their use (such as Google Meet), quickly wrote code so that they had them up and running by June so that educators can practice in advance of the start of the upcoming school year.

The learning objectives remain the same in a distance teaching environment. The only difference is how we achieve them. Be sure they are clearly and concisely communicated to students.

Capture the learning objectives of the lesson in a narrative. Researchers who study human cognition have found that one of the primary reasons that case studies are so effective in the distance learning environment is that stories are “psychologically privileged”. Because each case study tells a story of sorts, our minds treat them differently than other kinds of information. We understand them better, remember them more accurately, and we find them more engaging to listen to in the first place. When planning your lesson, whether you intend to use case studies or not, think about how to capture the ideas you wish to convey to your student in a narrative.

Connect the content to students’ lives. A second reason case studies so effectively embed long-term memories in our students is that they explain to students how today’s learning objectives are connected to their lives, this motivates them to stay engaged, and increases their persistence in the face of academic challenge.

Target students’ Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the three bears: if the academic challenge is too hard and students don’t have the scaffolding to get started, students give up. If it’s too easy, they get bored and their attention wanders because they don’t see the value in remaining engaged. The trick is to guide students through a task slightly above their current ability level. Teachers who accurately identify the ZPD of their students and design lessons that hit the mark maximize the odds their students stay interested and alert. First, identify what students already know. Then, introduce new concepts or skills with just enough scaffolding that students can complete the task with minimal peer or teacher support If students quickly and easily complete your assignment with ease, then you undershot the zone. If students are frustrated or report that they are searching the internet to find YouTube videos or other online supports to complete your assignment then you overshot the zone.

Less is better than more, especially when it comes to the number of words spoken (or the time words are being spoken) by a teacher during an online class. Being more targeted during the synchronous time you speak to students is vital. Make the most of what attention span your students will give you. Just keep in mind, the longer your lecture, the more frequent your students will have attention lapses. There has been extensive research on this. Let’s just say they have found that 1-hour online meetings, no matter how well planned and facilitated, don’t hold anyone’s attention. Whether you are teaching in-person or online, all highly effective teachers continually take the pulse of their students' engagement, and adjust your instruction to meet their needs.

Adapt your face-to-face lessons to creatively enlist students in active learning activities in the distance teaching environment. The more students actively participate in their learning, the more they learn and the more they retain what they have learned. If you are unable to provide hands-on laboratory or field experiences, utilize case studies and online interactive lab simulations to push your teaching to the lower layers of the learning pyramid.

Source: Adapted from the National Training Laboratories Institute of Applied Behavioral Science Learning Pyramid

Share your screen to focus student attention on the interesting content you are exploring with them. Here’s the key: Be sure to offer information (personal anecdotes, stories, etc.) not included in the document. Why should someone listen to you if all you do is read what they can read on their own?

Make extensive use of the chat feature during the segment of the lesson when all students are meeting together with the teacher. It’s an easy formative assessment of student engagement and understanding.

In addition to the chat feature, use at least one other formative assessment during every lesson. There are so many available to choose from, and the most effective online educators check for student understanding every time they “meet” with students so that they can identify individual students who are struggling and identify the content that most or all students are still struggling to comprehend.

Use small-group breakout rooms to get your students talking during every online lesson. It doesn’t have to be for an extended period of time, but a few minutes to talk to and view other people your own age offers myriad mental health benefits to your students. It’s critical to gain mastery of the software platforms utilized by your district so that you can facilitate the breakout rooms smoothly and effectively.

Utilize appropriate humor on a regular basis. Highlight your humanity and smile. Life during the upcoming school year won’t be easy, but we can be cheerful, can’t we? Students listen more closely to teachers who frequently infuse jokes into their class discussions, and they learn more while they listen more closely to those teachers.

Organize the lesson in shorter chunks to attract and maintain the interest of the learner.

Be a multi-modal teacher. We all learn more efficiently when information is presented to us in multiple modes, i.e. visually, auditorily, kinesthetically, etc. We are all visual learners, and we all are auditory learners, and we are all hands-on learners, etc. We all learn most effectively when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media. It's a good rule of thumb to surprise students with a change in instructional strategy every 15 minutes or so during class. Science Outside designs every case study to be multi-modal. Traditional lessons can be supplemented with short YouTube videos of discrepant events or observations of interesting phenomena to engage students at the beginning of a lesson or to re-engage them part way through an on-going lesson.

Keep mystery a part of your routine. Incorporate the unexpected into your teaching. Don’t be completely predictable. Students quickly become habituated to the status quo. When something in the learning environment shifts, however, students pay attention again until the novelty wears off. For example, announcing to students that you are going to try to livestream a new experiment you have never done before, or using a new teaching strategy, will increase student engagement for the class period.

Remind your students often that you understand and empathize with the challenges they are facing. In an online classroom, cognitive overload is a given: students are looking at a small screen divided among images of their classmates, teacher, and whatever instructional visuals the teacher may present. They must input and process all of that stimuli while at the same time listening, taking notes, and reflecting on the lesson content or others’ commentary.

Close each lesson with an authentic Check for Understanding or other formative assessment activity that measures mastery of the learning objectives for the lesson.

Break long-term assignments into smaller more manageable assignments that allow you to monitor student progress, provide supportive feedback, and ensure that no student falls behind.

Give students at least 48 hours to complete assignments. Students must contend with a host of possible distractions in their immediate environment - cell phones, frustrated parents, barking dogs, siblings - all things over which the teacher and student have little or no control. Given 48 hours, most of them will be able to navigate these challenges and find some time and space to complete a short assignment.

Consider making all written assignments due on the same day each week. Keep it simple for students to stay organized. In a distance teaching model, many teachers utilize “soft” due dates. They set dates for which assignments are due, but they understand that they are not present to provide the environment for students to complete the assignment, so they expect that for a wide variety of reasons perhaps 20% of the class may need an extra day or two to complete it. They collect approximately 80% of the assignments on the due date and work with the other 20% to bring them to completion within 48 hours of the soft due date.

Offer as many extra help sessions as possible. We offer individualized support when school is conducted in person, why would we neglect to provide this opportunity for students when we are in a distance teaching model? Students are more easily frustrated when they encounter academic challenge in an online environment, and they need daily access to personalized academic support or we will squander valuable learning opportunities. An added bonus is students are often more willing to offer supportive feedback to their teachers in this setting.

Identify students who are struggling early and communicate with them and their learning support group often. Engage family members as learning partners during at-home learning. It is essential to communicate weekly with students and parents who are struggling. We haven’t done our due diligence as educators in the distance learning environment if we have your first phone call with the parent or guardian of a struggling student three weeks before the end of the marking period. It’s vital to recognize that an email will never serve as a sufficient replacement for an audio conversation between a teacher and a parent, because so much is conveyed by the tone of one’s voice, such as our genuine care and support of the student, that is rarely fully captured in the written word.

Focus more on robust dialogue, both oral and written, and less on grades. This doesn’t have to mean your online course will be less rigorous than an in-person course, but it does require us to recognize that grades have nothing to do with rigor. True rigor is a measure of the academic challenge posed by the questions presented in a course, not the class average on a test or quiz. This is an enormous issue in its own right, we’ll do another blog post devoted entirely to the topic of assessment.

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