By: Amy Takabori
Originally Published: Scientific Learning, April 16, 2020
As remote learning continues during COVID-19 school closures, educators have shared a plethora of creative and useful ideas for effective distance learning. In addition to these resources, educators might also be interested in what researchers have learned through systematic studies.
In an EdWeek article, Brown University professor Suzanne Loeb briefly summarizes research on K-12 online learning. The bad news is that there aren’t very many studies that use the scientific “gold standard” of randomized control methods to learn what works and what doesn’t.
The good news is that there are plenty of studies about online learning that can still inform best practices for the hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country who find themselves in emergency remote teaching mode. So, in the spirit of the science of learning, here are six research-backed strategies for elementary, middle, and high school teachers who are teaching remotely.
Involve Parents, Especially by Strengthening Academic Expectations
One of the best ways to ensure students stay on track during periods of remote learning is to increase parents’ or guardians’ involvement. For decades, research has shown that when parents are involved in their children’s education, students achieve at higher levels, regardless of racial background, socio-economic status (SES), or their parents’ level of education.
However, recent research suggests that specific types of parental involvement have a greater impact on children’s academic achievement, varying by SES. One meta-analysis (Tan, 2019) on peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2017 found that, while students from all SES backgrounds benefit from many aspects of parental involvement, such as parent-child academic discussions and parent-child reading, parental academic expectations had the largest impact on the academic achievement of children from lower-SES families. Teachers, especially those who are mindful of their students from low-SES homes, should encourage parental involvement by helping them set high academic expectations for their children.
Academic expectations might include the value of graduating high school and attending college. More broadly, it is the belief in a child’s capacity to academically succeed, and the trust that this success will lead to opportunities in life. When parents have high academic expectations, they are more likely to participate in and encourage their children’s academic activities. Children then internalize these values and act accordingly.
What can teachers do to strengthen parents’ academic expectations for their children? Here are three strategies.
1. Highlight student achievements to parents, along with an explanation of the long-term impact of these achievements.
For example, if a teacher offers praise such as, “Charlie did a great job completing this week’s assignments on time,” they could expand it to be, “Charlie’s completing the assignments on time shows me that she is developing strong time management skills, which will help her continue to be a strong student as she moves onto middle school, high school, and college.”
2. Have parents sign off on daily agendas that describe assignments as well as their learning aims.
This practice not only holds students accountable for their work, it also exposes parents to the teacher’s academic expectations.
3. Arrange weekly virtual chats with parents.
Not all parents have the same resources to support extensive involvement, whether due to limitations of time, linguistic ability, or background knowledge. So, it is important to check in on what parents can do, to express gratitude for what they have done that week, and to encourage what they can do the following week. A weekly chat is also a good opportunity to explicitly discuss parents’ academic expectations for their children and to educate parents on how their involvement impacts their children’s achievement.
Read our related blog post, “5 Ways to Boost Parental Involvement at Low-Income Schools“
Assign Group Work (Middle and High School)
Another remote teaching strategy that can benefit students is to assign group work. Not only is collaboration one of the 4 C’s of 21st-century skills that will prepare students to be successful contributors to the workforce, but virtual collaboration in the workplace is becoming more widespread (even before sheltering-in-place began).
Research has also found that the digital mediation of group work can enhance student learning. Educational researchers found in an experimental study of middle school group work that “computer‐mediated communication formats offer several advantages that may facilitate productive peer dialogue in educational settings. For example, students have been found to be more reflective, interaction is often more egalitarian and democratic, and students are more explicit in their communication” (Asterhan & Gil, 2012).
Virtual group work shares some of the same risks of in-person collaboration, however, such as unequal distributions of labor and interpersonal conflict. There are also additional challenges unique to remote learning environments. Here are three strategies for successful virtual group work from Columbia University Teachers College Professor Susan Lowes (2014).
1. Design projects that require each group member’s unique contribution.
When every group member is indispensable, there’s a slimmer chance that one or two will end up shouldering most of the work while others are absent. Each group member might be assigned a different role, whether based on content or process. The Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) method includes roles like manager, recorder, and checker.
2. Use collaborative digital spaces.
Collaborative spaces encourage, well, collaboration. For example, teachers can assign groups to work on Google Slides, where students can contemporaneously work on the same file, rather than on a Microsoft Word document that can only be used by one person at a time.
3. Provide clear instructions as to what collaboration should look like.
This may be students’ first experience with virtual collaboration. So, teachers shouldn’t assume that students are familiar with what it looks like, even if students are digital natives. Specific, detailed instructions for every step of the project will be important scaffolding for setting expectations.
Educators who are teaching remotely might consider these six research-backed strategies—three for involving parents by strengthening their academic expectations and three more for successful virtual group work. Distance learning across the country has been an unprecedented challenge, and educators and students alike are learning as they go.