When the Ed Directions coaches started discussing the impact of the coronavirus on schools, one of our first concerns was how moving to virtual learning would exacerbate gaps between and among groups of students. Since most of our work is with schools that need to improve test scores or reduce performance gaps, we look for strategies that schools were using to make sure that students who were low performing in regular school settings didn’t fall farther behind in virtual school settings.
We were somewhat disappointed in the strategies being used in schools where we could monitor the work students were being asked to do, and we started pulling together a list of distance learning strategies that might help “at-risk” students make the most of virtual learning experiences. Through our work, we have found that at-risk or underperforming students share certain characteristics that we may have to address to increase their participation in and benefit from virtual school activities.
- Many at risk students share an attitude that school has little relevance to their life. This leads to attendance and engagement issues that undermine the learning and performing processes. The first issue for many underperforming students is to get them to come to school and then to highly engage in the schoolwork. This may require some strategy adjustments from teachers.
- Creative use of technologies available – Robo alert five minutes before virtual lessons start, robo calls for students not signed on to lessons to remind them to sign on, etc.
- Bell ringer activities – Used to engage students intellectually while teachers get the Zoom meeting or virtual lesson set up and provide the students with a preview of what’s coming.
- Proactive alert – An overview of what’s to be learned, what students will do to learn it, and how they will be held accountable.
- The learning environment in many homes is not conducive to high levels of student engagement in academic work. This can be a physical issue where the student does not have a private area in which to work or can be a human issue where the student cannot be isolated from distractions or activities involving other people in the house. Creating learning space can be an issue that the adults in the student need to address. There is some research on setting up “home learning space” that Ed Directions coaches recommend.
- Since many parents of low-performing students were not successful students themselves and possibly had little experience in effective learning environments, it may be necessary to prep parents (e.g., hold a 5- to 10-minute parent prep to alert parents to the day’s lesson and describe what an effective learning environment for that lesson might be.) The prep session can also alert parents who may not own effective parenting-of-learner skills to what parents can do to facilitate and support the learner.
- Creating student ownership of the learning space is another tactic that can be helpful. If, at the beginning of a distance learning or virtual learning course, the teacher takes time to help the student identify his or her learning style and what type of learning environment best supports that style, the student can then design their learning space and monitor its effectiveness.
- One of the reasons many students are at-risk is that they have never learned how to learn. In the regular classroom, many students try to get by through complying or appearing to comply with what the teachers asking students to do. This isn’t best practice in the regular classroom and is disastrous in a virtual situation, since it is more difficult for the teacher to monitor engagement and understanding in the virtual setting. Ed Directions recommends that virtual lessons include several “student as independent learner” strategies.
- Proactive alert – A bell ringer activity that sets the stage for the lesson and an introduction to what’s going to be learned, to the work that’s going to be done, and to what the students are expected to be able to do with what they’ve learned.
- Attending work – Teacher or student work that focuses student attention on any critical vocabulary, relationship, or process that is being learned.
- Acquiring work – Student work that involves acquiring the critical learning set that they will need to store in memory.
- Multiple opportunities to attend and acquire – To provide students who may not be proficient learners with multiple opportunities to “initiate learning” of critical concepts and processes, students may need more than one “exposure” to the learning. Ed Directions coaches recommend “pair/share” discussion of what was just learned, small group collaborative “standardization” of what was just presented to be learned, etc.
- Organizing work – Student work (individual or small group) that helps students organize what has been learned from long-term memory (e.g., retrieval charts, fryer models, personal glossaries, flowcharts, etc.) Organizing work is critical for moving work from short-term memory to long-term memory.
- Meaningful work – Student work that causes a student to think using the learning or think about the learning and makes the learning independently retrievable from long-term memory.
- Monitoring work – A work “snippet” that gives the teacher a chance to see what was just learned or what the student took from a learning activity. If used regularly, it provides the teacher with a linear record of student learning and student growth as learner.
- Assessing work – The work a student is accountable to complete in order to demonstrate learning in proficiency.
Once the virtual experience is underway, other strategies can come into play; but for the virtual experience to work for underperforming students, it’s important that they attend, that they have a place where they can work effectively, that they engage in the work that is done, and that the work that they do makes them more effective learners. The Ed Directions coaches recommend the three strategies above be considered as teachers plan virtual experiences for the students. Planning for differentiating the work to meet the differences in learning rates and learning styles will require a different set of strategies.