From the Blog

The Elements of Effective Instruction in Remote and Hybrid Environments

by Don Weafer 

don blog march 2021 (1)

We at the Great Schools Partnership have spent many years thinking about how to pull together the research about powerful instruction and frame it in a way that is useful for educators who seek to improve instructional practice in their schools. The result is the Elements of Effective Instruction, which includes five key elements of teaching:

  1. The learning environment
  2. Clear, shared outcomes
  3. Varied content, materials, and methods
  4. Practice and feedback
  5. Complex thinking and transfer

We’ve intentionally limited the elements to categories of instruction, so you’ll find, for instance, formative assessment strategies addressed in depth but summative assessments only to the extent that they demonstrate the outcomes of instruction. The collection of resources linked above was, of course, designed for schools as they existed before the Covid-19 pandemic upended what we thought of as “normal” instruction. In response, we’ve developed the Elements of Effective Instruction: Resources for Remote and Hybrid Learning, which links to high-quality resources and practices developed by educators over the past year. I’d like to highlight some of the features of that tool here.

Learning Environment: The learning environment includes physical and virtual classroom spaces and all of the routines and techniques that teachers use to build relationships and community. When students are not in the same room together, much of the natural community building of a classroom disappears, and teachers must intentionally build environments and routines that connect kids to the teacher, to each other, and to the learning space. This is especially true in hybrid learning environments, where the temptation will be to turn on a camera for the kids at home and go about class normally with the students who are in the room. Instead of asking, “How do I include my online students in my in-person classroom?” I invite teachers to ask, “How do I include my in-person students in my online space?”

For teachers of younger students, take a look at Using Social Stories to Establish New Routines, posted on Edutopia, in which Courtney Daignault shares how to teach children unfamiliar routines through storytelling.

If you’re interested in some new ideas about energizing students and encouraging them to turn on their cameras, check out 7 Activities to Build Community and Positive Classroom Culture During Online Learning, from The New York Times.

Clear, Shared Outcomes: It goes without saying that clear learning outcomes are crucial for student growth, but while many teachers post and review learning targets at the beginning of class, students often cannot explain how their learning at any given moment connects to those outcomes. In other words, the outcomes are clear, but not shared by students. And when a class moves online, students may lose track of how to find and use those outcomes.

I’ve found a few resources helpful for sharing outcomes with students. First, think about defining learning scales with your students, rather than simply providing them scoring rubrics. Bill Rich, an education consultant from Vermont, outlines this process beautifully in his blog, The Why, What, and How of Learning Scales.

For an even simpler explanation of how to unpack learning outcomes, take a look at Jennifer Gonzalez’s post, Meet the Single Point Rubric, on The Cult of Pedagogy. Neither of these resources is specific to online or hybrid learning, but both can be adapted easily to those environments.

Varied Content, Materials, and Methods: Personalization and the differentiation of learning improves student engagement; this truth applies to all learning environments, including those that are hybrid or virtual. If students are learning through technology already, why not open up the ways they can pursue their own interests, learn content, and show what they know?

Blended learning practices and station rotations can be particularly effective at building differentiation into our online instruction, and they have the added benefit of working equally well in hybrid models and connecting students who are in the classroom with students who are not. See Kara Douma’s post on Edutopia about How to Make Station Rotation Work During Hybrid Learning and Dr. Caitlyn Tucker’s blended learning resources, specifically A Flipped Flow for Blended or Online Classes.

Practice and Feedback: All teachers ask students to practice skills and provide them with feedback on those skills, but many teachers put far too much emphasis on practice and far too little on timely, specific feedback. A class is not more rigorous because a student has to complete fifty versions of the same problem instead of ten. Feedback is not useful when it happens after the learning, written on a summative assessment. Yet teachers spend hours of their time each week grading and commenting on finished pieces of work, rather than focusing on coaching students and delivering timely feedback during learning. If anything, this dynamic is exacerbated by online and hybrid classrooms in which students may be expected to complete work independently for days at a time. To avoid this, clarify learning outcomes with students, narrow practice time to focus on those specific outcomes, create feedback routines to help students produce their best work, and bring students into the feedback process.

If you haven’t looked at Meet the Single Point Rubric yet, do it now! Gonzalez includes a sample table for providing feedback to students, and it’s simple enough that students should be able to use it to self-assess and provide feedback to each other. Caitlyn Tucker also provides examples of effective and efficient ways to provide feedback in 3 Strategies for Personalizing Feedback Online.

Complex Thinking and Transfer: When we ask anyone outside of schools what skills and knowledge students should graduate with, they talk about complex, transferable skills like problem solving, communication, collaboration, and self-direction. Required for all of these skills is complex reasoning, metacognition, and the ability to transfer learning to unfamiliar tasks and environments. Students need direct, explicit instruction to support developing these skills, and we need to resist the temptation to give students less complex work because they are not in our classrooms as often.

For a simple way to infuse complexity into everyday instruction, see Questions to Provoke Critical Thinking, from Brown University. For younger students, consider Marlana Martinelli’s 10 Tips for Teaching Kids to be Awesome Critical Thinkers.

None of the resources linked above apply only in virtual or hybrid learning environments, and that’s the point. Good instruction is good instruction in any environment, even as our tools, methods, and routines shift to accommodate changing circumstances. If you are interested in learning more about the Elements of Effective Instruction and joining a discussion about what we’ve learned from remote and hybrid instruction, consider registering for our Discovery Session coming up on March 23rd, 2021.