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Tips for effective teaching if you have to teach at a distance

This blog is based on the book ‘Lessons for Learning’, a translation of a recent Dutch language book, which should be coming out before the summer. The book is a collaboration between Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Camp, Daniel Muijs, and myself.

Because of the Corona pandemic, we’re all going through a period that none of us have ever experienced. With respect to teaching and learning, kids can’t attend school and we must help them learn at home. And this might last weeks or months. Fortunately, online education offers a solution, but the instructional techniques involved are not (completely) the same as what we do in the classroom during face-to-face education.

Here are a few simple pointers to help:

1. An important advice beforehand: Stick to the essentials.

Beware of offering too much new subject matter and possibly concentrate more on maintaining previously learned subject matter. This advice is powerful and good to follow, because learning materials that you don’t repeat is forgotten. Think of the infamous dip after the summer holidays!

2. Frame new subject material that you want students to learn in the bigger picture.

Clearly indicate what your students should learn and place this in a larger picture so that they have some context. Provide them with what Ausubel once called ideational scaffolding or anchor points that help them structure the new materials and direct their learning process.

3. Refer to relevant prior knowledge students have and can look up.

The most important factor in learning new things is what you already know. Make sure your students know what specific prior knowledge is expected of them and where they can find it if it’s no longer in their heads. Where can they go if they no longer understand certain concepts, have forgotten formulas or if previously acquired skills no longer work?

4. Communicate concrete goals and / or success criteria with the subject matter.

Obviously the goals and expectations that you have set are for you, as teacher, are clear. Pupils don’t always find clear what exactly is expected of them and to what level they should master the material.

5. Have students study a detailed example before starting the exercises.

One way to use examples effectively is to use worked-out examples. These are problems or exercises where the solution is completely worked out, step-by-step. Another type of example is a modeling example. You carry out the task yourself (in a YouTube maybe) and during the solution process you constantly also tell why you do certain things.

6. Offer students support during practice.

Not everyone understands the content immediately. It’s important to realise this so that you have alternate routes and examples ready just in case. You must do your best to match the knowledge and skills of the students with what they need to learn. Use scaffolding to support students and decrease this as they better understand the material. This can be difficult given the current circumstances.

7. Have students actively process the subject matter.

Studying the subject matter isn’t enough. Therefore, give your students assignments that activate the processing of the material. Have students elaborate (expand): Formulate questions that get them thinking. Think of questions about: What? Where? Who? When? Why? How? Here too, ensure that students can improve and i their answers.

8. Let students find out whether they have mastered the subject matter.

Have your students (after practicing) make a kind of “practice test” with which they can check whether they have mastered the learning materials. Research clearly shows that taking a practice test – retrieval practice - leads to better learning and retention (than, for example, rereading the material), but also gives the student insight into whether she or he has really understood the material. The latter is important, because as a teacher you are not present with the student to check for their understanding.

9. Provide students with adequate feedback on what they have done.

It’s important that students receive feedback on their answers. This can be corrective (wrong: the answer is), but better is directive (wrong: you should have solved it that way) or epistemic (How did you get this? Was the answer different if you had taken into account …?

10. Spread exercise over time .

If you are presenting new subject matter, don’t do it in one long session but use shorter sessions and return to it at one or more later moments. This is called the spacing effect. Research shows that it is much more effective to spread the practice over time.

In a nutshell:

Keep it short. “Try not to do all of what you normally do in your online class.”

Prepare well. “Know what you’re going to say, don’t change it during class.”

Provide structure. “List what students should do and see if they have done it.”

Prepare students. “If you are going to talk about something, prepare them beforehand with stimulating their prior knowledge.”

Give short assignments before and after and require them to be submitted to you. “Not complicated or profound, but things they can do in a few minutes and you can see whether they are prepared (before) and understand (after).”

Make use of the online resources available. “Don’t try to do something better in an evening that that which has already been done well by someone else.”

I hope this helps. If you want to know more about what constitutes good teaching for effective, efficient, and enjoyable learning you might want to read a book I recently wrote with Carl Hendrick: How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice available from Routledge but also via Amazon (US and UK).