By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.
In March 2020, the world changed dramatically. From shopping to socializing to exercising, we had to rethink our daily lives. Educators were tasked with quickly pivoting to ensure student learning continued in a worldwide pandemic. One of the things that did not change was the science of learning. Even in a pandemic, how we learn stays the same.
In 2015, Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit organization representing leaders in educator preparation, summarized research from cognitive science about how students learn in The Science of Learning. Led by Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, the team constructed six principles for learning. I’ve adapted these six principles to create the six Cs for learning in the virtual world. This post covers the first three.
Students must feel an emotional connection to both the teacher and the content. We are naturally designed to want to make emotional connections before we feel safe to take intellectual risks. Additionally, students must have some relationship to the content in order to acquire new information. In other words, students need background knowledge before new ideas can be learned. Below are ideas for making connections in the virtual classroom.
Build personal relationships through a one-on-one virtual meeting. Get to know each student as an individual.
Give students an interest survey to find out what they like, what they are good at, where they need to stretch, and so on. This can be done through an online survey or while you are doing your one-on-one meetings.
Get to know the cultural and familial backgrounds of your students. Become knowledgeable of your students’ lives outside the classroom. Get to know their traditions, celebrations, languages, and richness of experience.
Build belonging with your class community—even in the virtual setting. Set high expectations for all students. Make sure all adhere to proper online etiquette and protocols. Provide opportunities for all students to make meaningful mistakes that lead to meaningful learning.
Ensure you connect your students’ prior experiences (both in and out of the classroom) to new learning. You can use analogies, metaphors, and graphic representations to help students make those connections.
Confidence to Control
What we believe about ourselves as learners has a significant impact on our achievement. Your students’ mindsets will either motivate or demotivate them to work hard and put forth effort. Additionally, the more you as the teacher try to control the learning, the less likely students are to develop a responsibility for the learning. Here are ways you can build your students’ confidence to take control of their learning.
Provide students opportunities to work within a passion area. This can be done by having kids do internet searches on something they would like to learn. Allowing them to select a topic of interest where they can apply the skills they’re learning in the general curriculum can significantly increase their motivation to learn.
Start each learning session using positive self-talk. Model for your students how to do this. Many teachers use daily affirmations or famous quotes. Affirmations are simple sayings that help students stay focused on the positive, such as:
- Success is about being your best self.
- Failure is an opportunity to learn.
- My challenges help me grow.
- Effort is the key to my success.
- Every day is a new beginning.
To help your students feel a greater sense of control, have them set goals each day. Goals in the virtual setting should be small, short-term, and achievable in a short period of time. If your teaching period is 20 minutes, students may set a small short-term goal to volunteer one response before the end of the session. Setting small short-term goals builds students’ confidence to achieve bigger dreams.
Encourage students to reward themselves. We have evidence that shows that the use of extrinsic rewards and punishments has little to no effect on learning. What we should be asking our students to do is set a worthy reward for themselves based on the achievement of their goals. Rewards should be less about getting something (money, a certificate) and more about building themselves up (such as spending 10 more minutes on their favorite game or 15 more minutes riding their bike).
One of the best ways to build student confidence is to have them self-assess their work. Education scholar John Hattie found that when teachers engaged their students in monitoring their own learning, students’ confidence to take control of the learning increased.
When students were in-person in the classroom, we had a better chance of keeping them focused and on task. In the virtual world, we must recognize that students’ attention spans (the ability to avoid distraction) are significantly reduced. I highly recommend limiting instruction (lecture or video viewing) to no more than 15 minutes. Here are some ideas for how to do this.
Learning happens when we can transfer information from working memory to long-term memory. Students have a limited amount of working-memory capacity. Too much information can overwhelm them. Identify within your content the most significant bits of information that are required to do an immediate task. Focus on that information during the 15-minute block, and then allow students 10 to 15 minutes of processing or practice time.
When teaching a new process, use work examples to reduce the cognitive burden. Work examples are a step-by-step demonstration of how to work through a problem. As students become comfortable with the process, you can slowly eliminate the demonstration.
Use virtual teaching tools whenever possible or appropriate. Websites such as Kahn Academy or Smithsonian Learning Labs are free tools that can support your students when you are not online with them. These sites also allow students to investigate topics that may not be covered in your general curriculum.
Provide students with examples, rubrics, models, and other forms of explanation. In the virtual world, we may not recognize when a student is struggling. Give students work samples or examples of what is expected so they can review the examples on their own when they hit a snag.
Students learn best when using multiple modalities (visual, kinesthetic, auditory). When lecturing (auditory), be sure to have visuals that can help students remember what was stated. Be careful not to overwhelm your students with slides that have a lot of words on them—I suggest keeping the word maximum per slide to around eight words. As the old saying goes: A picture paints a thousand words, so use visuals (pictures without words) to help students remember the bigger ideas.
Next month, I will be sharing ideas for the remaining three Cs: communication, check-ins, and consistency. Please share with me and other readers how you are making learning work in our new reality.
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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