The Distance-Learning Era: Translating and Adapting Effective Principles of Instruction

We are in the midst of a rapid and abrupt transition in education. This new distance-learning era we find ourselves thrust into has fundamentally changed what’s possible with instruction and created a new set of constraints and limitations. Mike Hobbiss captured it best “you’ve entered a marathon and it’s become a triathlon half way through… and we don’t know yet how long each section will be.”

It is my goal in this post to think-aloud how effective principles of instruction might translate to distance learning.

While major technology investments have consistently failed to deliver on big promises in the past (interactive white boards, personalized learning etc.), we find ourselves in a new era where a “quarantine back-up plan” must seemingly always be a ready option when it comes to teaching. That means no matter how we feel about technology in education, we need to get better at this distance-learning thing – and preferably fast. Some version of this could be the new normal for quite some time.

And so, what are some effective principles of instruction that might be of use in a distance learning environment? And, what are some ways technology might even be used to hone aspects of instruction given these circumstances?

What I’ve Learned From Others

In a “Letter to my Y12 Psychologists” Mike Hobbiss emphasizes two keys to being a successful and motivated distance learner – habits and revision.

On habits, Hobbiss writes “that is the amazing thing about habits, we do them automatically, without having to think or motivate ourselves to do them.” To help students, it is recommended that tasks be chunked into smaller segments (e.g. multiple 15-20 minute chunks vs. 1 hour cramming). Also, due to the inherent challenge of learning new things without an instructor, Hobbiss highlights the value of frequent review. “Distance learning works best for revising what you’ve already covered, rather than learning lots of new material.”

Along the same lines, Harry Fletcher-Wood writes about insights from behavioral psychology on how we can help students stay motivated while distance learning. Fletcher-Wood outlines five key principles teachers should follow:

  • Prioritise fundamental goals; turn them into habits
  • Show students the value of participation
  • Plan when and how
  • Make it easy
  • Make it a habit

Harry Fletcher-Wood, “Motivating distant learners: schools under coronavirus

Building on these ideas, I’ve developed three principles driving my approach to distance learning and three areas to focus my instruction.

Principles Driving My Distant Learning Instruction

Here are three broad principles that are guiding me in making the transition to distance learning.

Explicit. Just like quality in-person instruction, distant learning should be explicit, delivered with precise directions, and full of plentiful opportunities for practice and feedback. Also, lessons should be in small chunks with plenty of review. My intellectual preparation of lessons will largely be devoted to finding creative ways to get students to interact with content, respond via formative assessment, and then receive feedback.

Cohesive. Teachers and students will benefit greatly from having easy access to a high-quality, systematic curriculum that is straightforward and keeps learning organized. A cohesive set of high-quality texts with text-dependent questions, vocabulary and formative assessments will be most useful and adaptable for distance learning.

Simple. To keep students motivated and make everything manageable, I am planning a few high-leverage routines students can be immediately successful with. Less is more, particularly now. Additional apps, accounts, and extensions should be kept to an absolute minimum until we all get the hang of this – e.g. I will utilize a single Google form for assignments to make things as easy as possible the first couple weeks.

Where I’ll Focus my Instruction

With my three guiding principles in place (explicit, cohesive, simple), I now want to make sure I focus on a few teaching practices to emphasize in my distance learning instruction. Here are three that should work well in this new environment.

  • Retrieval Practice. Technology makes it incredibly easy to implement routine low-stakes quizzes encourage retrieval practice. Auto-graded Google Form quizzes provide immediate feedback for students and teachers can save hours spent hand grading. I’m planning on using a brief low-stakes quiz for attendance every day. I’ll also be looking for opportunities to utilize digital flashcards, and will create a slide deck with new vocabulary terms (along with student-friendly definition, examples/non-examples etc) for students to use as a resource in each unit.
  • Formative Assessment. For my in-person classes, I’m always stopping while reading whole-class to check for understanding. How can this be done in distant learning? For the time being, I’ll be using a single Google Form to be answered while reading that includes multiple choice/short answer questions to spotlight key concepts. I’ll also provide close-reading screencasts that students can use as a scaffold.
  • Explicit Writing Instruction. How can systematic and explicit writing instruction be adapted to a distant learning environment? I’m now in the process of experimenting using Google Forms with Writing Revolution prompts and scaffolds. I’ll also be recording short videos of worked examples/models and hope to do a Top 5 weekly show-call of student work to take advantage of whole-class feedback.

What I Won’t Be Focusing On

Having covered principles behind my distance learning approach and where I’ll focus my instruction, I want to end with a few areas I will not be spending much time on.

PBL/Inquiry projects. Minimally-guided instruction will quickly turn into zero guidance in a distance learning environment. Now is not the time for complicated, open-ended inquiry projects that will only result in jumbled slideshows or “web sites.” Keep it simple, and develop routines so students can feel success early on. Supplemental background knowledge and enrichment can come from teacher-selected supplemental short videos and podcasts.

Synchronous video chats. Trying to recreate an in-person 50 minute class using Zoom is probably not a great approach to distance learning. On a practical level, imagine a family with 2+ students all attempting to use WiFi simultaneously while parents WFH. Furthermore, an informative thread by StuckInTheMiddle highlights U.S. DOE research showing how participation drops with videos longer than 9-12 minutes and that students benefit from having control of their interactions with media – being able to decide when to watch/read and respond. As such, I plan on largely using asynchronous assignments while making myself available to give help while also providing plenty of whole-class feedback with exemplars.

Put Simply

  • Distance learning presents new constraints and limitations to instruction that must be cautiously navigated.
  • Some of what works for in-person instruction has the potential to translate well to our new distance learning environment:
    • Principles Guiding Instruction: Explicit; Cohesive; and Simple.
    • Instructional Practices: Retrieval practice; formative assessment; explicit writing instruction.
  • Probably best to avoid synchronous video chats and PBL research projects early on.

6 thoughts on “The Distance-Learning Era: Translating and Adapting Effective Principles of Instruction

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