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Making Virtual Learning Effective: 8 Quick Tips for Success

Whether you are pivoting from in-person instruction to virtual learning or already knee-deep in virtual instruction, you may have discovered (along with many other educators) that the exact same lessons taught in the classroom don’t always translate well to online learning. It may be daunting to have to rethink your lessons and approach to instruction while also learning new tech tools. The good news is that with a few tweaks, virtual learning can be more effective. In addition, all of the tips and tools that are shared below can also be integrated into your instruction when you return to teaching “in-person” in your classroom.

Why rethink lesson design and delivery for on-line learning?

When teaching virtually you are competing against a multitude of distractions that are not present when teaching in-person. Virtual instruction requires us to think and design instruction a bit differently in order to be engaging and effective. Here are some tips to consider when teaching students virtually.

The Challenges of Virtual Learning

  • Organization - Keep this saying in mind, “less is more”. There are a ton of tech tools that can be utilized, however especially with younger students, be careful not to overwhelm them with too many new tools to learn. Sometimes “old school” can work even better. For example, having students actually raising their hand rather than using the virtual tool seems may be a better option. Their hand is more visible as it remains in sight longer, and it is more engaging for students.

  • Technology can be wonky - Storms can knock out power, connectivity can be spotty at any given time, and computers will inevitably freeze at inopportune moments. Have a plan for what you will do and what students will do if (or perhaps when) you experience technical difficulties and share this with students ahead of time. For example, they may choose to read independently or write in their journals if there is a momentary power issue. Clearly communicating the expectation helps the learning to continue and takes the pressure off a bit in the moment.

  • Student Engagement - Screen fatigue is real. Virtual learning must employ different strategies than in the classroom to really engage students. If you are feeling like your instruction is more like entertainment, then you know that it’s time to rethink student engagement. See some specific ideas in #6 below.


Seven Tips for Effective Virtual Instruction

Redesigning Instruction for Virtual Learning - many tried and true instructional strategies can be redesigned for effective virtual instruction with just a few tweaks. Be sure to have your rules posted as a visual behind you or on a piece of card stock that is easily accessible. This will help to make sure that the rules are reviewed and/or created collaboratively and referred to often. Having icons for younger children such as mute, unmute, etc. can also help as quick reminders. In addition, keep these tips in mind as you plan your virtual lesson:

1. Building Relationships is Essential. All learning is social and emotional. At a time when many students (and adults) are struggling emotionally and limited in their social interactions due to Covid, we need to plan for time to build relationships from teacher to student and student to student. One simple thing you can do is to use the names of your students . Greet them as they enter the “virtual room”. Use students names more often - utilize classroom names in word problems in math, and brief stories or analogies. Here are some other ways to build relationships (check back later for a more in-depth explanation and strategies).

  • Morning Meeting/Advisory - begin the day with a greeting, sharing, activity, and morning message. Keep these brief especially with younger students. For special area teachers and MS teachers consider using one component or daily check-ins (see below)

  • Daily check-ins using Google forms can help students share how they are feeling

  • End your lesson with a brief reflection with a focus on something positive.

Ex: What strategy worked well for you today? or What are you excited about learning tomorrow?

2. Deliver lessons in smaller chunks. Support learners by avoiding overload and delivering information in smaller chunks than you would in a traditional classroom lesson. Use this simple framework to foster independence:

  • Model a skill, strategy, or step to a project - keep it brief (5-10 min)

  • Students work on their own or in small groups (10-15 min)

  • Students come back together to share their work, reflect , and debrief (5 - 10 min)

3. Consider when to use synchronous vs asynchronous learning. If students are learning something new or in need of additional support synchronous learning will work best. When students are at different levels of understanding it may be better to work synchronously with a small group while the other students are working asynchronously. This can done by utilizing zoom rooms or choice boards (see below for more information and resources).

4. Incorporate multiple means of representation. Use PPT slides, videos or pictures to illustrate what you are communicating. If using PPT, keep slides clean with minimal print using icons and other visual cues to emphasize key points and assist learners.

5. Give opportunities to practice. Learners need to be able to immediately apply their freshly acquired knowledge to ensure they absorb what they’ve been taught. A virtual presentation can get everyone on the same page, but it’s the opportunities to apply their new learning and dialogue with others (think breakout groups and partner chats that will make their learning stick.

6. Amp up engagement.

  • Always begin by sharing the goal for the learning. By preparing a short opening into a lesson, you prime your students' brains for the new information that they will be learning. This is often referred to as the “ hook” and is meant to be a short (ten seconds to three minutes), engaging moment that grabs the interest and attention of learners. The “hook” is often used at the beginning of the first lesson of a topic. Examples of a good hook are: an interesting and engaging story (inserting the names of students can make your story even more engaging), an analogy connecting the lesson to the students' interests, some type of prop (such as a picture, an actual physical object, or a puppet), a source of media (think of lyrics/music or a brief video clip) or perhaps a challenge or open ended question that gets their minds thinking (such as a riddle/puzzle to solve).

  • As you are designing your lesson, plan for ways to students to interact with the content every 3–5 minutes (using thumbs up or down to indicate agreement/disagreement, short answers in the chat box to open ended questions, or scale of 1-5). Keep in mind that attention spans are short, and online distractions are all too real.

  • To help your learners stay engaged consider adding in the following where appropriate: ask open ended questions and have students write/draw their answer on a physical white board (have everyone share using “1,2,3, flip”) polls, chats, and whiteboards for brainstorming. Utilize technology such as Near Pod, break out rooms, scavenger hunts, case studies, interactive learning structures (Jigsaw Teach and Say One Thing work well in virtual environments), as do Learning Stations and Energizers.

7. Offer choices. Choices are naturally motivating and therefore engaging to learners. The choices can be simple or more complex depending on your goal:

  • Some simple ideas include: - choosing which problems to answer (odd or even), which materials to use (crayons or markers), or which text to read.

  • Some more complex ideas might include: Choice menus - these can be easily made to differentiate learning. Ex: in language arts students might read the same text, but have a menu of choices for how they will present their answer: make a google slide, flipgrid, or educreations. Another powerful strategy to use if offering students the choice of either what (content) or how (process): For example, in spelling students may be given the choice of which spelling words to practice (this can be based on student writing and analyzing mistakes) and/or how to practice (this might include choosing word sorts or the Frayer model)

8. Remember to give specific feedback. One thing we know from research is that good feedback is essential to moving students forward. This can be easily overlooked in a virtual setting. It can be difficult to give specific feedback to individual students. For older students you can utilize the chat box. Teaching in small groups can help teachers to give the most effective feedback. Be thinking in advance what the goal is for each student and give feedback on that goal. Ex: In first grade you might say to a student that is learning to read, “Sarah, your eyes were on the page just like we’ve practiced and you reread that last word to make sure that it made sense.” Consider emailing feedback to parents on a regular basis so that they are able to share with younger students what you are noticing.

Chances are that you will be teaching virtually at some point during the coming year. Give yourself grace as you pivot and remember that we're all learning best practices for teaching virtually together. It is more important than ever to make sure that we are practicing self-care. Remember to take the time to breathe, get outside for a walk, or do whatever it is that "fills your cup". Your own social and emotional health is essential for great learning to happen. Check back for blog posts that dive a bit more deeply into each of these tips in the coming weeks.


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