Teaching from a distance

How teachers can support their students during the COVID-19 outbreak
Wolfgang Lonien,flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Wolfgang Lonien,flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

While schools are closed, teachers continue to be responsible for the education of their students, and there are more digital tools than ever to help. Teachers can apply the principles they draw on in the classroom to this new working setup to support continued learning at home.

Many teachers around the world are adjusting to the new normal in their work – teaching students from a distance. There is an abundance of online tools, some of which have recently been made free to access, to help teachers with this transition. A key challenge that teachers face is the limited evidence around the efficacy of these programmes or platforms. It’s very difficult to find any scientific evidence around best practices for digital or distance learning. In my own search, I found many articles full of tips, which may prove useful for teachers, but very little that was ostensibly evidence-based.

There is an awful lot that is unknown about how to teach effectively from a distance. In part, this is because technology advances so quickly – the programmes examined in an extensive overview of the evidence from 1996 to 2008, published in 2009, will be different to the programmes used today. Students are also digital natives now, bringing their own expertise to their learning.

To complicate matters further, teachers, students, and their parents are all operating in unusual and stressful times, adopting new routines, and figuring out how to get through the day alongside other family members at home. Teachers and parents will have to work together to ensure learning can continue.

Applying general principles of learning

Under these challenging circumstances, teachers are using their expertise and autonomy to do their best to support learners at home. Thankfully, we do know a lot in terms of general principles of learning that teachers can apply to their new ways of working. The principle of desirable difficulties points to a number of specific actions that can be taken to enhance learning: for example, switching between topics (interleaving), or testing for learning rather than assessment (the testing effect). Similarly, an understanding of the three broad principles of learning (engagement, building knowledge, and consolidation) may help teachers to see why different practices they try do or do not work.

“Those students from poorer backgrounds without additional help will need the most support and encouragement from teachers.”

There is also a rich literature concerning homework that can be drawn on. One important strand of this research highlights the impact that family life has on the effectiveness of homework. Inequalities are widened through homework, since students with a good work environment and assistance from family benefit most from homework, while those without that help do less well.

Teachers are likely to be concerned at the possibility that inequalities in outcome will increase while students work from home. Those students from poorer backgrounds without additional help will need the most support and encouragement from teachers.

A second important strand of the research on homework points to the importance of good quality feedback. Ensuring that feedback continues while students learn at home is therefore likely to enhance learning. Feedback is most effective when students are actively engaged in the feedback process – for example through assessment literacy, whereby students apply their understanding of the assessment criteria to their work and the work of others. Even asking students to provide feedback on the work of their peers helps learning, while reducing the workload for teachers.

“Teachers will use their expertise to select what they think will work best to help their students not only learn effectively, but also build confidence and motivation – ready for the eventual return to school.”

Although we don’t have a strong evidence-base around the best tools, platforms, and techniques for teaching students from a distance, there are principles of learning that teachers can apply to this new scenario. Teachers will use their expertise to select what they think will work best to help their students not only learn effectively, but also build confidence and motivation – ready for the eventual return to school.

Weekly newsletter

Newsletter icon