Distance learning – building independence

We are all having to cut our cloth to fit these new circumstances.  Speaking personally, it has been disconcerting and at times uncomfortable, and so much of the research evidence that informs our teaching practice feels hard or impractical to implement from across the digital divide.

For example, I made a Loom video (all the rage at the moment) aimed at modelling to my Year 10 history students how to answer a tricky historical interpretations question.  Now, the video is 30 minutes long.  It think its generally quite good in terms of the content, I switch from the PowerPoint to my visualiser for some live modelling and explain using metacognitive principles of unpacking my thinking.

However, without the punctuation I would normally give it in class through questioning and allowing students to practise sections, the intrinsic cognitive load of the entire piece is off the charts!  Thinking back to it now I should have said: “pause video now” and then given some instructions every so often.  However, would students have done that?  Will any of them actually get to the end of it?  Even the head of history (who I line manage) said he hadn’t found the strength to watch it yet.

I think the answer here is not to beat ourselves up too much.  We are doing our best and having to adapt really quickly to what’s going on.  Much of what we do will be at odds with evidence informed principles of how learning and teaching work best and that’s probably okay for now.

However, research evidence can also lend a hand.  For example when we are pulling our hair out about how Year 8 have once again failed to follow what we perceive as simple instructions, cognitive load theory and the limitations of working memory may help soften our frustrations.  Furthermore, this might be an opportunity to build some traits in our students that we previously not found the time to focus on.  One obvious example is independent learning.

This idea can be approached from many angles, but as metacognition has become a bit of a specialism of mine, I’m going to look at it from that one.

Strand 6 from the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report is “Explicitly teach pupils how to organise, and effectively manage, their learning independently”.  Now don’t we all wish we’d paid more attention this this a month ago!  Within the guidance a fictional student, Nathan, makes an appearance in the following case study story:

Nathan knew that to revise properly he would need a technology ‘black out’. With a little help from his father, Nathan made his bedroom more like an office than a games room during his GCSE revision.

Each evening at seven o’clock, just after dinner, Nathan would switch off his phone and go upstairs to revise. First, he’d check his revision plan and get out what he needed before steeling himself to do some hard work. Strategy number one was always a quick flashcard challenge, mixing up his cards from his different subjects, before testing himself. Then Nathan would test himself on different topics, with past questions or simply seeing what he could recall with a blank piece of paper, before ticking them off his revision plan.

Expecting his usual lull after forty-five minutes, Nathan would grab a drink and a biscuit (or three) before getting back to his revision. At the end of his revision session, he would end with the nightly ritual of returning to his revision plan to chalk up his victories and losses.

I actually read this to Year 11 parents when I did an evening in the Autumn focused on helping parents support their children in the lead up to exams.  I joked that Nathan’s parents must be pretty smug.  However, these attributes of planning, monitoring and evaluating learning are exactly what we want our students to exhibit at the moment.

Furthermore in the guidance report, the attributes Nathan exhibits are related to some of the key strategies for independently learning suggested by one of the fathers of metacognition, Barry Zimmerman.  These are:

  • setting specific short-term goals (for example, Nathan executing his revision plan);
  • adopting powerful strategies for attaining the goals (Nathan’s self-testing using flashcards);
  • monitoring performance for signs of progress (Nathan monitoring his progress by answering past questions);
  • restructuring one’s physical and social context to make it compatible with one’s goals (Nathan changing his bedroom so it was fit for revision and learning);
  • managing time-use efficiently (Nathan giving himself an appropriate break);
  • self-evaluating one’s methods (Nathan checking his revision plan at the end of his session); and
  • attributing causation to results and adapting future methods (Nathan checking his revision plan, ticking, or not, appropriately before adapting his revision plan).

Now, the tricky part at the moment is while this is all sage advice for effective independent learning, what we also know is this must be explicitly taught through careful explanation, modelling and practice with substantial scaffolding at each point.  This is fine when we are seeing our students regularly but more difficult at a distance.

Therefore, here are some suggestions for how we could encourage these behaviours during distance learning:

  • Setting specific short-term goals
    • Communicate with students where the learning is heading over a series of up-coming lessons.  Give them some way-points in advance of what you would like them to know/be able to do at various points.  This way they can judge how it is going, rather simply ploughing through activities.
  • Adopting powerful strategies for attaining the goals
    • Explain why you are starting this distance lesson with a quiz and why is important they check the answers immediately.  Normal routines are not there so they may not see the need for that retrieval practice.
  • Monitoring performance for signs of progress
    • Lots of teachers are using online-quizzes at the moment.  Suggest students keep a tally of their scores and repeat quizzes after a few days to see if they are getting more correct.
  • Restructuring one’s physical and social context to make it compatible with one’s goals
    • A key one here for distance learning.  This may have been attempted with students (probably in a bit of a rush) before we “shut the gates”.  A bit of modelling might be good here.  Our staff have been tweeting their own home office spaces with a consistent hashtag.
  • Managing time-use efficiently
    • Give students some guidance on how long they should spend on different sections of the lesson.  Otherwise you may find (as I have been) that they spend too long on a less challenging section and therefore miss the more challenging and useful parts that come later.  There also are planning implications for us here.  Remember we cannot dictate the pace as we normally do so perhaps we need to reorder that lesson and cut bits out.
  • Self-evaluating one’s methods
    • Some simple questions would be good here to generate a class discussion, things like:
      • What did you find difficult today?
      • What strategy did you use to complete the second task?
      • Why do you think we are learning about this at the moment?
  • Attributing causation to results and adapting future methods
    • Checklists can be really useful here.  Asking our students to monitor where they are with their learning and connect that to the lessons they have been completing.

The idea here is not to give anyone more things to feel guilty about not doing.  As I said, we are all doing our best in trying times.  However, hopefully we can use these evidence-informed practices to help navigate the choppy waters of distance learning.  Good luck all!

By Chris Runeckles

This entry was posted in General Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Distance learning – building independence

  1. AB says:

    EdPuzzle and Classcraft quests are great ways to chunk learning and promote independence with a bit of external motivation.

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