Thursday, May 21, 2020

Back to School Online--first session

Thinking about how to welcome students to your class, online, in a live session? Here’s how I do it.

First, track down contact information for everyone. Preferably email, but be prepared to phone.

Set up your online classroom with the first two weeks of assignments. You are sorting your class into weekly modules with daily assignment lists, aren’t you? And of course you’ve prepared your lessons in advance so you know what the assignments are, right?

Link to your live session from within your classroom. This is important, because you want to begin as you mean to go on, and you want students to make a habit of going to the online classroom. You might consider creating a short, low-stakes quiz about the welcome-back session email content as your first assignment.

Email a welcome email. Make it easy to read in a text-only format, and well formatted—this is your first impression, and it counts. Send a test email to another of your email accounts and check it on desktop, a tablet, and a phone.

My email has been honed over the last decade or so to include:
  • a  greeting with a note about the back to school meeting with the date and time. If you’re creating a quiz about the email as the first assignment, note it here. Give them a link to the class website (which is hosted in your school’s LMS like all their other classes, right? So they have a central calendar with all the assignments for all their classes?)
  • a paragraph about myself with my credentials, my hobbies, my location, my family, and our pets.
  • a paragraph about course expectations, with strengths and weaknesses of the online course and how we compensate, including a request for any information about special education needs
  • a paragraph about the importance of writing skills, manners, and another request for students to reach out
  • a paragraph about my teaching philosophy, course structure, and another request for students to reach out
  • a handful of tips for success in the class
  • a paragraph about the back to school meeting with the date and time, including how to find the link for the meeting
  • my name, title
    • school name
    • email:
    • emergency phone:
    • office hours:

The day before your chosen date and time, run a test session with a trusted friend. Make sure all your systems are go and your presentation clear.

Fifteen minutes before the session begins, I enter the session and load my slide deck. I also enable the chat function so students can chat quietly amongst themselves while we wait to begin.

My presentation includes:

  • An introductory slide, with the school logo, the date, my name, and a note that the session will begin soon. This will go up first, before anyone else arrives.
  • A series of slides that uses a wordless workshop approach to ensure that everyone can hear me and can use their microphone.
  • A slide or two teaching them how to use the chat box, and how to turn off the audio/visual notifications to allow for better concentration. This is the first time I take roll, by having them put their name in the chat box.
  • A slide with pictures of me, my kids, my husband, my mother (who lives with us), my teaching license, and some social media screenshots (but I never, ever friend students on social media).
  • A slide teaching everyone how to raise their hand.
  • A slide teaching everyone how to set their “away” status. I don’t want students to interrupt my class by asking permission to go to the bathroom—they just set their status and go. Neither do I want to wait for them when I’m polling. If they’re away, they miss the poll. I also use the wordless feedback buttons built into the system in the same place, and we practice using the “confused” “faster” “slower” etc settings.
  • A slide teaching everyone how to use the editing tools, so they can practice drawing on the board, using the cursor on the board, typing on the board, and erasing the board. For the first session, I only ask that they find the “pointer” button because…
  • The next slide is a generic, not very accurate map of the world. I ask everyone to hover over their approximate location. This builds camaraderie from the get-go, and lets students feel seen.
  • The next slide is a screenshot of what students see when they first click into class, and I show them how to find their weekly assignment folders.
  • I “open” the assignment folders in the next slide, and show them what it looks like. I also point them to the “help” links, including how to submit a trouble ticket, and how to find directions for accessing recordings.
  • Next slide, I back out of the course and show them a screenshot of the central calendar
  • Next slide is an overview of the weekly course schedule, with the set days per week that an assignment is due, and I review what kinds of assignments are due on which days. I ask them to use the course tools to answer here (thumbs up to move on)
  • Then I have a series of slides with text about course policies, including attendance (separate synch vs asynch policies), textbook reading, cheating, electronic devices, learning differences, learning environment, late policy, assignment formatting (12-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, 1” margins ONLY), assignment prior review, assignment revision, and assignment archiving. We zoom through these—remember, students get a copy of the slide deck to review later. After every other slide or so, I ask students to give me a thumbs up to move on. We’re making a habit of attending.
  • Then I have a slide with my communication policy (Be nice), and a reminder about lawsuits from online writing.
  • Next slide is a list of examples of meaningful participation for the online, written discussion questions, copied and pasted from my syllabus. Students frequently have questions here, so I take my time.
  • Next slide is a list of study skills. We briefly review.
  • Next slide is a set of chat room etiquette, and we practice using it (bad and good examples) before we move on.
  • Then the next series of slides is where I review the grading breakdown for the course. Rather than make separate decks, I use one deck for all my classes, and just use separate slides of each course's grading breakdown.
  • Next slide is a screenshot where I review a model of good online, written class discussion and show them what I’m looking for when I grade it, including how I mark the rubric and why. Students frequently have questions here, so I take my time.
  • Finally, if I have time, I have a slide about why we should study what we’re studying in the course.
  • Second to last, I have a How To Contact Me slide, including my personal cell phone number in case of emergency. Oh, and I tell them my time zone. They always want to know what constitutes an emergency, so I tell them (and it’s true) that students use this in emergencies: hurricanes, forest fires, flooding, car accidents, and so on, and I’m OK with that.
  • Last but not least, I link to the student survey where I ask questions so I can get to know them. 

This orientation usually takes a slide 40-50 minutes, depending on student questions. But, after it’s complete, they can come to class without an issue, and have a leg up on finding their assignments.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Observations about Appropriate Online Teaching for preK-2

While I primarily teach secondary education, I have children of my own that I’ve homeschooled. Some of what I’ve learned about teaching online and what I’ve learned about homeschooling younger children intersect. So while I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, I do have some thoughts.

One of the key parts of teaching younger children is “joint attention” or when both the teacher and the student are engaged with the same item, sight, or idea. I suspect that this a huge part of what classroom teachers are missing when they say they miss face to face teaching. It’s crucial for preK-2, and helps immensely at all ages.

One cannot simply park young children in a live videochat for hours on end and walk away. Even with the expectations of social contingency, one teacher with a dozen or more squirming kindergarteners simply cannot give the back-and-forth needed to sustain their attention for educational purposes for long periods of time. For a successful experience, another human must be on the other end, redirecting the child’s attention to the screen, supporting the teacher. Since 80% of children have siblings, and 64% of families with children have two working parents, this is an unreasonable expectation.

Which isn’t to say that teachers shouldn't do live videochats with younger students, but there is a point of vanishing returns. If I have to make my 6-year-old sit in front of the screen because they’re bored and wiggly after the 30 minute mark, they’re focused on not disappointing me, not the educational task.

A similar problem exists with web or app based tasks. I have seen far, far too many preK-4 online assignments that require logging into multiple apps and presume students have essentially unlimited Internet access, which is just not true.

Even among the oldest and wealthiest students in 2017, about 1 in 5 did not use the Internet at home. For the youngest, poorest students, fully half did not use the Internet at home. For the students who did use the Internet at home, about 37% of households are smartphone only users, which means that at best, half of students have poor or no Internet access.

The FCC recommends that students have between 5 and 25 Mbps of Internet access each, but the typical broadband speed of mobile phones is only 10 MBps. If there is more than one person using the Internet at a time, 12-25 Mpbs is recommended, which means that effectively half of our students are locked out.

If you assign something that uses Flash animation, I’m not going to have my children complete the task. Flash “is being killed off in 2020” but we’ve not used it for years in my house.

Far too many assignments are a virtual scavenger hunt, which irritates me as the worst type of busy work. What are your students actually learning about the content? Or are they learning to hunt and click and poke at areas of the screen?

For young children, this requires motor coordination on small screens (like mom's phone) that they might not have. At best, these kinds of assignments are inequitable for children with fine motor disabilities, like my oldest child. At worst, they’re frustrating beyond belief, no matter that they look good on your home laptop with a 19” screen.

 Furthermore, I am seeing many assignments in which either:
  • the students are doing pretend activities—pointless
  • the teacher sent all students home with all the materials required—I very much doubt
  • the teacher is assuming that parents are substituting items—not going to happen for many families

While a video of a science lab or math activity may look like fun, unless the materials are exceedingly common, it’s not going to happen—and much like Pinterest fails, what looks good on the screen may be an utter failure in practice. Unless you’ve actually sat down and done the experiment with a child of the appropriate age, don’t assign it.

In fact, you should always do your own assignments, to make sure your expectations are realistic. Does it require 45 minutes of parental time to put together a demonstration of a simple science concept? Inappropriate assignment for K-2.

Instead, assign watching the video and then have students answer questions about the video. If your students aren’t old enough to independently answer the questions in writing, then don’t assign written answers—or online answers that the parents must read to them and type in for them. Just don’t. These parents have enough on their plate without scribing for their children.

Be careful about what you assign. If you’re going to require that parents of young children go through the effort of uploading work, then you owe them each individual feedback as a matter of common courtesy. Non-snarky feedback. Otherwise, you’ve assigned pointless busywork, and no one is amused by this.

If you’re not sure whether students can do it independently, then I suggest you err on the side of caution. Pick up the phone and call the student to talk to them about it. Alternatively, give clear written directions to the parent for verbal questioning. Have parents make 5-second videos of students summarizing, which parents can then text you. All of those are easier than scanning and upload worksheets for which parents had to supervise completion.

Sound difficult? Yeah, this requires a lot more planning than finding something cute on Pinterest and posting it to the LMS, or even playing with the shiny new whiz-bang app. But a huge part of good teaching is planning with what you want students to know as the end result. Not the activity, but the knowledge.

This is why I say that the most important part of online teaching is about what happens offline. What’s happening with those assignments you’ve created in the student’s mind? Remember, the vast majority of tasks should not require Internet access.

If you’re a relatively new teacher, and you don’t have a clear mental picture of the end result of your unit, or your year of study, than this planning can be exceedingly difficult.

While many younger teachers might not know this, until 30 or 40 years ago, teachers could and did teach whatever they wanted—because there were no standards and no standardized curriculum or textbooks. I’m old enough to remember when my father, an experienced middle school science teacher, brought home his very first boxed curriculum from a curriculum publisher. Up until that point, he had DIY’d everything because there was no other option.

But that's also like saying we need to teach people to build their own houses, even if from kits, because professional carpenters aren't available to everyone. Education is not like that anymore, and we don't have to put up with amateur hour wood cabins with wind whistling through gaps in the walls. Even if we want to build and design our own, we can buy professionally created cabin kits that are customized to our specifications.

This helps new teachers with workload. Why should you have to reinvent the wheel every time you teach? As a teacher, you can focus on getting better in the short-term—classroom management and routines, developing relationships with students, handling paperwork—while gradually getting a better overview of the content area and good ways to explain things to students.

In addition, assessment is its own science. Designing tests, assessments, retrieval practice—these are all things that high quality curricula have baked in by professionals. Why should I go out in the woods and chop down a tree with an ax, or even tootle down to Lowe’s and buy a 2x4, when I can stop in a my local custom home seller and get a high-quality, factory built house?

Want some recommendations for curricula appropriate for K-2 with clear instructions to the caregivers, that do not require oodles of Internet access? Here, you’re supporting parents by providing them with daily lists of expectations, perhaps a 3 minute video demonstrating the skill you want the child to master and how you want the caregiver to show the child, and daily or weekly touching base with parents/students to assess progress.

  • Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons
  • Logic of English
  • The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading
  • Explode the Code
  • All About Reading

  • Core Knowledge
  • Logic of English Foundations
  • a library card—no, really, help parents get library cards. Most libraries have digital collections of children’s books

  • Saxon Math
  • RightStart Math
  • Math Mammoth
  • Singapore Math with the Home Instructor’s Guide

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Theory Into Practice: Retrieval Practice

This is the 4th in my series Theory Into Practice. For the other three, click here.

tl;dr at the end

Today, I want to talk about one of the Retrieval Practice website guides. This website is run by Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist who studies how students learn. She wrote a book called Powerful Teaching (which I have not read). But I follow her on Twitter @PoojaAgarwal and I’ve been consistently impressed with the tips and ideas she shares.

Today, I want to talk about “How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning” in the online setting. This is the first guide, authored by Agarwal, Roediger, McDaniel, and McDermott. If I’m tracking properly, Roediger and McDaniel are also co-authors on one of my favorite books, Make It Stick. (Did I give out copies of this book as holiday presents to family members? Yes, yes I did.)

The guide begins by defining terms, always promising. They define retrieval practice as 

“a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out [of students’ heads.]”

While they acknowledge that most teachers already do this, they’d like teachers to use it as a learning strategy, not as an assessment tool.

At this point, I’d note that formative assessment and retrieval practice go together like bread and butter. By formative assessment, I mean an assessment that you use as feedback to guide (or form) your teaching. Students can easily find the correct answers in their materials, and the point is not who knows the material, but how many of the students can retrieve the information on demand.

You can do this online. During a live class session, I incessantly pepper the students with quizzes. “What do I do next?” and expect the answers in the chat. I intersperse faded worked examples with problems with multiple-choice answers for them to answer via an anonymous poll. Students can also individually use a red/yellow/green button to let me know to slow down or speed up. 

In an asynchronous format, I give my students key words, processes, and concepts to memorize using a Leitner box. I also give a variety of small assignments that I don’t grade for them to use as retrieval practice--diagrams, skeleton notes, timeline additions, etc. Finally, I often include these concepts in written, online discussion questions. 

Next, the authors point out one of my favorite, generally underappreciated bits about retrieval practice--fluency =/= long term learning. Yes, many students can cram for a test and pass, but come final exam time, it may as well be written in a different language. 
“The more difficult the retrieval practice, the better it is for long-term learning.”
Recollection is better than reading, and writing the recollection down is better than simple recollection. Practice is key because it allows students’ learning to become more flexible

We all start out with inflexible knowledge--we carefully follow the directions in the recipe on the back of the mac and cheese box. Later, you might decide to follow a recipe to make mac and cheese from scratch and learn how to make a bechamel. When you go back to the box mac and cheese, you realize that melting the butter first, adding in a tablespoon of milk, and whisking in the packet makes for a much better box mac and cheese. You’ve graduated to flexible knowledge--you can break the rules in the recipe and get away with it.

We can do this online. We can carefully teach students to follow the rules step by step. I use faded, worked examples, but after I’ve presented the concept I also write down the steps for each new concept on a single slide for students to use for later reference. I will often demonstrate a problem, and write down numbered steps as I go. “Step 1, factor out the GCF.” 

In an asynchronous format, this is when I provide models and numbered, blank steps for them to fill in and return for my feedback. The grade is minimal--it’s about being able to retrieve the knowledge. Sometimes, I provide work that I don’t grade.

“because students have a better understanding … by having practiced using this information, students can adapt their knowledge to new situations…use a variety of question types to ensure that students are … using information flexibly.” 
In my experience, this is when online, written discussion boards shine. One of my favorite things to do is to pick a key concept from a couple of weeks ago, find a short news article or relevant video, and then have students discuss. I might also ask students to write summaries of assigned textbook reading--writing practice, retrieval practice, and reading practice. Finally, I use a variety of primary sources (yes, in science and mathematics too), and ask students to write a series of short-answer essays to analyze the sources. This, too, is retrieval practice.

Next, the authors discuss metacognition, or thinking about thinking--in this case, thinking about what you do and don’t know, so you can make better study decisions. As the authors point out, when teachers review the results of students’ metacognition exercises, they can adjust their instructional practices.

One of my favorite synchronous activities for this is something I do every 10-15 minutes in a live session. I set up a poll like this:
“I can ____ (use the quadratic formula, do long division, list the organs of the circulatory system)”
  • “Yes, I’ve got the power!"
  • "I understand the concept, but I might not be able to do it.”
  • “I don’t really “get” it, but I can do it.”
  • “You were talking??”
This requires students to practice metacognition and gives me important feedback on how well the lesson is going--especially important in the online classroom, where I can’t see body language or other non-verbal clues.

A favorite asynchronous metacognition activity is to have students identify three things that they don’t understand and want to get better at--and then tell me how they’re going to improve each piece of knowledge, skill, or ability. Then, I ask them to identify how they’ll know when they’ve mastered the concept. (This is especially tricky, and often requires assistance from me.) Finally, I ask them to list a motivation for improvement.

One key point that the authors make is that students should always be provided with feedback on their retrieval practice. “Ah!” you say. “You didn’t even grade that!” It’s true that I don’t grade many activities. But, generally, that’s because the diagram is in the textbook, or I’ve explicitly provided the answers in a separate PDF, etc. In addition, I frequently go through the answers during the synchronous class session.

Then, the authors review who this works for--all students, all ages, all subject areas. Because this is so widely applicable, it’s definitely usable for online education, and in fact, the authors call out some useful at home activities, such as answering practice questions and using flashcards. Low-stakes quizzing can be conducted online as well as face to face.

As the authors note, this should be a class-wide strategy, not just for some students. Reviewing their suggestions--clickers are equivalent to synchronous polls and colored index cards are equivalent to the red/yellow/green system in the live online meetings. Exit tickets can be completed on a Google Form or in your Learning Management System (LMS) at the end of a synchronous or asynchronous video session. Or, you can have students summarize the chapter they’ve read and send you that summary.

The page protector with dry erase markers is a mini-white board situation, and you can handle that with anonymous in-class polls, as I wrote earlier. 

There are some slick websites, such as Desmos, that allow teachers to see multiple students’ work at the same time, but I strongly discourage teachers from requiring students to switch between the screen on which you’re interacting to a second website during a live class session. I'd save this for later retrieval practice. As Adam Boxer says, you need to demand their attention, because as Blake Harvard points out, task switching is an exercise in futility, and as Jon Gustafson writes, you need to use a single screen for best attention.

The authors review some challenges--yes, you can use your own curricula and your own teaching style. They encourage teachers to swap out less-effective tasks for more-effective tasks. Frequently, I have people ask me about apps and websites and such. Honestly, I rarely promote any piece of tech because 9 times out of 10, those are simply shiny variations on worksheets, not providing any more benefit than the low-tech solutions I already use.

How much retrieval practice is a good question. I use Saxon math, which is an 80/20 curriculum: 80% daily review, 20% new. “How can students possibly have enough practice with only 6 or 8 practice problems for new materials?!” Trust me, it works. It works well. Last spring, I received an email from a student for whom math didn’t come easily, and yet they’d tested into college algebra on the basis of my class. 

One of the things that we talk a lot about in my online classes, both during synchronous sessions and in asynchronous discussion, is test anxiety. Students love that their questions are all knowledge with which they’re already familiar. A 72% reduction in test anxiety reported by the authors seems perfectly logical to me.

Again, the authors note that feedback should always be provided, preferably with explanations. You can discuss or display the answer. Blake Harvard’s post about ranking multiple choice answers lends itself to online quizzes where students order answers (and the data can be auto-populated to a spreadsheet for you to use for formative assessment). Then, you can add short-answer essay questions for elaboration on their choices. When they submit the quiz, you can provide automated feedback on why each choice was more or less correct. Yes, it takes a little more upfront work from you, but it saves you hours of grading--and once it’s complete, you can easily use it next year.

Retrieval practice works better when there is space between being presented with the new information and the retrieval. This is where systems like Leitner boxes are golden, as I mentioned earlier. Another way I do this online is to use discussion questions to explore concepts in that week’s survey course content, give low-stakes fact retrieval quizzes weekly, and then once a month or so, require students to write essays based on the concepts covered in the online, written discussion questions. “Comparing Week 2’s discussion about X with Week 4’s discussion about Y, give an analysis of Z.” With sufficient scaffolding, even my middle schoolers can do this.

Last, but not least, I’m pleased to see that my assignments-without-grades idea is supported here. “Provide feedback, not grades or points.”

tl;dr from the authors:
  • Use it as a learning strategy to guide your teaching.
  • Make it low-stakes or not for a grade.
  • Use it frequently.
  • Do it after the lesson.
  • Use a variety of strategies.
  • Use it for any student, any subject, any grade.
  • Give feedback.
  • Hard is good.
  • Examine current strategies.
  • Use a variety of question types.

tl;dr for using it online from me:

  • Don't grade everything
  • Don't make them turn in everything
  • Give whole class feedback or automated individual feedback

Friday, May 1, 2020

Theory Into Practice: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction

Part two of a series. Part one is here.


  1. Give live, synchronous lectures where possible 
  2. Model what you want students to do
    1. respond to every student, every week in the online written discussion board
    2. walk through math problems, narrating your problem-solving decisions
    3. provide good writing for students to imitate
    4. show students the correct answers on diagrams
  3. Judicious use of high-quality YouTube links, both in live screensharing and as links for further information is well-suited to online classes
  4. Computer-based presentations are the heart of online education
  5. Realistic demonstrations are difficult, but not impossible to do in online education. 
  6. Class discussions can be done online, both live in the chat box and asynchronously in the online written discussion boards.
  7. Use faded, worked examples. I have a whole blog post about that!
  8. Make 9-12 minute videos to teach a single concept asynchronously.
  9. Use breakout rooms for small-group retrieval practice and reciprocal teaching
  10. Use online written discussion boards for “write a list of 3-5 things learned” at the link/video/hands-on activity
  11. Have students turn in scratch work
  12. Have students use flashcards
  13. Give students plenty of worked examples

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Theory Into Practice: Structuring Videos for Online Learning

Today, I’m examining one of the best pieces of research I’ve seen on how to make asynchronous videos for online teaching: How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos. It was written by Philip Guo (MIT), Juho Kim (MIT), and Rob Rubin (edX).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think MOOCs are not the way we should construct online education for K-12 students. They have terrible completion rates, and are generally only attractive to people who are already educated. However, given the terrible completion rate, it makes sense to run an analysis of the most popular courses to understand why they’re popular. What makes them good?

The authors set two measurement standards:
  • how long students watch each video
  • whether they attempt the integrated problems afterwards
From my experience, I know that many of my students skip watching videos altogether and just tackle the problems, only searching for help if they feel like they need it--exactly the opposite of the typical MOOC student. However, in both cases, the extent of watching videos and attempting integrated problems makes for a good metric.

They also did some other analysis relevant to our interests as online, K-12 teachers, which is that they analyzed speaking rate and video types, as well as production style. Luckily for us, big bucks doesn’t equal better engagement.

They classified videos as being:
  • Slides -- PowerPoint presentation with a voice-over
  • Code -- instructor writing code in a text editor, IDE, or command-line prompt
  • Khan-style -- full-screen video of an instructor drawing freehand on a digital tablet
  • Classroom -- recorded classroom lectures
  • Studio -- studio with no audience
  • Office Desk -- close-up of an instructor’s head filmed at their desk

Recommendation 1: Invest heavily in pre-production lesson planning to segment videos into chunks shorter than 6 minutes. 

Article Summary:
  • “Video length was by far the most significant indicator of engagement. … The shortest videos (0-3 minutes) had the highest engagement and much less variance than all other groups. … it takes meticulous planning to explain a concept succinctly”
Field Experience:
  • This corresponds with my experience in creating slide decks for my online classes in core content areas. Last night, I worked from about 8:30 pm to 11:30 pm on one week’s worth of slides--two, 50-minute sessions for one chapter of material covering two main ideas. I ended up with 24 slides, 12 per lecture, or one approximately every 3 minutes. Each slide works sequentially through the material, answering one question or covering one vocabulary term. I prepared a high-contrast slide with few words, and a visual illustration of each topic, as well as extensive notes per slide for my reference. It’s not about being pretty--it’s about minimalist, appropriate design--”have all the related material positioned together.”

Recommendation 2: Videos that intersperse an instructor's talking head with slides are more engaging than slides alone.

Article Summary
Field Experience:
  • I’ll be honest and say that I don’t do this as a matter of course. I’ll pop on at the beginning of a recording, say, “Hi!” and then not show my face again. Mostly, this is because I don’t routinely record videos solely for asynchronous use--I record live sessions that are made available to students who are unable to attend, or who wish to go back and review. 
  • While I don’t track stats, I know that many of my students routinely go back to review the  session as a tutorial. When I’m recording, I’m being aware of students who don’t have great Internet access--who might be joining from a 3G mobile hotspot--and so the extra picture-in-picture video stream places unnecessary strain on their limited bandwidth. So I don’t do it. I also don’t routinely screen share to show videos for the same reason.

Recommendation 3: Film in an informal setting.

Article Summary
  • Given two similar courses, with a similar content and similar quality of instructor, student engagement was twice as much for the informally filmed videos, vs the big budget studio production. Experts noted that the informally filmed videos showed an instructor comfortable having an office-hours style conversation with the watcher--it seemed personalized. Even though the other instructor had decades of success standing at a podium, it didn’t translate well to the online format.
Field Experience:
  • Comfort working as though you’re explaining to a single student, or small group of students, is key here, I think. When you’re comfortable being virtually present with your students, it shows. I plan with a typical student in mind, and then deliver the content as though I’m speaking to just one person, or a small group of people. 
  • However, there are a couple of caveats. One, your background shouldn’t be distracting. No cluttered rooms, no running children. Audio quality is incredibly important (more so than graphics quality!), so invest in a good headset. The echoing quality of an empty room is distracting.
  • Set a routine for the beginning of class that notices and welcomes all the learners. I do this by taking roll, and then doing a special shout-out to all the missing students. I don’t jeopardize their privacy by saying why they’re absent, but I will note that someone let me know, or conversely that I don’t know why someone isn’t absent.

Recommendation 4: Introduce motion and continuous visual flow into tutorials, along with extemporaneous speaking.

Article Summary: 
  • Khan-style tutorial videos (i.e., an instructor drawing on a digital tablet) were more engaging than PowerPoint slides and/or code screencasts. [10% increase in engagement.]
  • … freehand sketching facilitates more engaging dialogue and … the natural motion of human handwriting can be more engaging than static computer-rendered font.
  • .. instructors who sketched Khan-style tutorials could situate themselves “on the same level” as the student rather than talking at the student
  • … Khan-style tutorials require more pre-production planning than presenting slides or typing code..
  • most effective Khan-style tutorials were those made by instructors with clear handwriting, good drawing skills, and careful layout planning”
Field Experience:
  • For a master-class on this, go watch Adam Boxer’s most recent ResearchEd videoWhile I don’t find it necessary to annotate or freehand every slide, it does form an integral part of my teaching style. I can, and do, write in cursive on the screen with my mouse. I often prepare partially worked, faded examples then I then complete with the students using an I Do/We Do/You Do format, which often corresponds neatly to the concrete/visual/abstract process. Nearly every class, I’ll insert blank slides at strategic moments to free-hand diagrams, model problem solving, or write definitions. Even non-example (mostly text) slides are fair game for me to mark up by hand, often in response to a student question.
  • Do not ask students to watch a presentation and read at the same time. It’s splitting their attention, and that’s a no-no. Instead, show them an animation and talk about it.
  • Do not ask them to switch between your screen and another document. You’re going to lose their attention, and break the flow of instruction. Instead, their attention should be solely focused on you for the entire lesson. I don’t even want my middle-schoolers to take notes. I give them skeleton notes to complete from their reading, instead. 

Recommendation 5: If instructors insist on recording classroom lectures, they should still plan with the MOOC format in mind.

Article Summary:
  • “We compared video engagement for CS188.1x and 3.091x. Both are math/science courses with instructors who are regarded as excellent classroom lecturers .. and both wanted to record their edX lectures in front of a live classroom audience
  • .. there was not enough time for the 3.091x to record his lectures, so the video producers had to splice up an old set of lecture videos recorded for his on-campus class
  • ...the [CS188.1x] instructors carefully planned each hour as a series of short, discrete chunks
  • ...students engaged more with CS188.1x...Also, … 55% of CS188.1x watching sessions were followed by a problem attempt, vs 41% for 3.091x”

Field Experience: 
  • I do this. Organization is so incredibly important in online teaching, and this includes your video lecture. Each week’s block of content has an introductory slide:
    • school logo
    • my name
    • class name
    • week of school number (Week 32)
    • day number (two sessions per week, so Day 1 or Day 2)
  • Behind that, a slide with short list of that week’s content, either lesson by lesson, or chapter sub-headings, etc
  • Then, I signal each lesson (which covers a single concept) within a longer lecture with an introductory black and white text slide (Lesson 98: Pythagorean Theorem) so that students reviewing the video have built-in indicators of new topics.  
  • Finally, each concept is organized in linear fashion within the lesson and has its own slide, which I’ll use for 2-5 minutes. Therefore, each slide could be its own video segment.

Recommendation 6: Coach instructors to bring out their enthusiasm and reassure that they do not need to purposely slow down.

Article Summary:
  • “Students generally engaged more [up to 2x] with videos where instructors spoke faster.”
  • “Problem attempts followed a similar trend.”
  • “We found no significant differences in the number of play and pause events among videos with different speaking rates.”
  • “Fast-speaking instructors conveyed more energy and enthusiasm..”
  • “ trouble understanding even the fastest-speaking videos (254 wpm) since the same information was also presented visually”
  • “...for the slowest videos (48-130 wpm) the instructor was speaking slowly because he was simultaneously writing on the blackboard; the continuous writing motion might have contributed to higher engagement on those versus mid-speed videos”
  • “speaking rate is merely a surface feature that correlates with enthusiasm and thus engagement”

Field Experience:
  • This is why I am tired after four back-to-back hours of online teaching. You have to bring your A-game every time, all the time, non-stop.
“You’re doing them a disservice if you’re letting them focus on something that isn’t you.” -- Adam Boxer
  • There is no break while students are starting on their homework, no downtime while you set them to group work, no quiet moments while they’re reading. (Read Jon Gustafson on group work.) You are in it to win it, with non-stop intensity for the whole time.
  • Do not be assigning work in class--they’re not going to remember it--or assessing work that they’re doing in class. Their eyes should be on what you’re showing them every second. Instead, use your pre-assessment to determine what to cover in class. “I saw that many people missed …”
  • If I need them to remember key facts or numbers, I make sure it’s written down on the screen, or reference the text that I’m using. “On page 79, lesson 26, you’ll see…” and then illustrate it on the screen.
  • If the chat box is too distracting for some students--and it is, for many of them--show them how to turn it off, and give them an alternate, private method to catch your attention. I have my students direct message me while I’m speaking.
  • Imagine being John Green on a Crash Course video, but taking questions and checking for understanding mid-video and doing it for 240 minutes straight. It’s mentally exhausting to do all of this at the same time:
    • keeping track of time
    • noting progress through the material
    • reading the chat box as you go
    • managing student behavior
    • listening to audio questions
    • verbally answering questions
    • writing on the board
    • attending to what you write on the board (I cannot absentmindedly solve a quadratic equation)  
    • narrate your thought process as you write (enthusiastic teacher talk)
    • attend to the quality of student feedback
  • Your positive attitude makes or breaks the class. Even when terrible things happened to me personally, I never once let up my professional energy and intrinsic joy in the subject matter. The sole exception is when I come to work sick (because I don’t get days off or sick leave), and then I’m up front with the students--”I’m sorry, you’re not getting my best today.” Generally, they’re pretty understanding.

Recommendation 7: For lectures, focus more on the first-watch experience; for tutorials, add support for rewatching and skimming.

Article Summary:
  • “Lecture videos usually present conceptual (declarative) knowledge, whereas tutorials present how-to (procedural) knowledge.”
  • “… students only watch, on average, 2 to 3 minutes of each tutorial video, regardless of the video’s length, whereas lecture engagement rises and falls with length”
  • “… students re-watch tutorials more frequently than lectures”
  • “...longer videos were more frequently rewatched.”
  • “Students usually paused tutorial videos more selectively than lecture videos...”
  • “...students paused slides/code tutorials more selectively than Khan-style tutorials”
  • “Instructors of slides/code tutorials gradually build up text on a slide or a chunk of code, respectively, and then explain the full contents for a while before moving onto the next slide/code snippet”

Field Experience:
  • It makes sense to watch something, try it and fail, watch it again, and try again. I do not track how often students rewatch my videos, but I do gradually build up text on a slide. Very often, I’ll tell students to screenshot the slide before I move on, because when I move, my writing is not saved. They’d have to go back and rewatch to see it again. Frequently, students will ask me to pause while they take a screenshot.
  • Unlike a MOOC, I provide my slides to my students, so I make sure to present worked examples on slides even when I skip them during class. So, if I have a blank slide, and I fill it up as we work a problem, the next slide will be that worked problem neatly typed up for when students want to go back and review the material.
  • Unlike a MOOC, because I’m initially recording a live lecture, I demand student attention every 3-5 minutes with some kind of whole class interaction--but that’s a different blog post.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Teaching Students with Print Issues--Online

When I write about education, I try to stay in my lane, as it were. I don’t write about teaching AP classes, because I’ve never taught one. I don’t write about the best ways to do literature analysis online because a) I despise doing literature analysis on demand, and b) I don’t teach language arts.

However, I am a certified special education teacher, and I have learned a few things about applying that training to the online classroom. First, you can’t do everything online that you could in a face to face classroom. It just isn’t going to happen. For example, I cannot give one to one handwriting lessons online, correcting grip as we go.

But, you can structure your online class in a way that is more easily accessible to students with some learning issues—and use that structure for all students. You don’t have to do the work twice, if you do for everyone in the first place. I was reminded of this today when I read this excellent blog post that someone on EduTwitter linked to (mea culpa, I do not remember the original linker).

It’s a simple, but important concept:
“If a lesson isn’t bang on, some students will make up for that deficit, through prior knowledge, independent study, or some other means. But some other students won’t.”
Specifically, today, I want to talk about students with print issues. This could be because they’re English Language Learners (ELLs), or students learning English as an Additional Language (EAL), maybe they have dyslexia, or poor reading comprehension skills, or perhaps they’re visually impaired in some way.  

Nationwide in the USA, about 1 in 10 students are learning English while they attend school. Between 1 in 20 and 1 in 9 have dyslexia. Overall, two thirds of fourth graders are not proficient readers for whatever reason.  This means that in a typical US class of 24 students, two are learning English, one or two have dyslexia—and a full 16 of them are not reading at the fourth grade level.

This is a major problem. This is especially a major problem when you’re teaching online, and you can’t easily talk to your students all the way through class.

What can you do?

Well, as it turns out, you can do a whole lot. Here are some suggestions:

The very first thing that you can do is post visual schedules. When I post these in my online classroom, they’re color coded, which also helps. Every day, the student with print issues can find the item that they’re supposed to do today.

The second thing you can do is to use OCR-capable text. OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition, and it’s what lets computers recognize text in documents. Have you ever tried to use your mouse to copy something from a PDF, only to realize that someone had scanned a photo and inserted it instead? So annoying, right? Well, it’s worse if you’re a dyslexic student, or have visual impairments, and you need to make the text bigger or have your device read the text to you. Without OCR, you're out of luck. Text to speech technology only works for OCR text. So when you scan files for your students to read, always scan as text.

Allow your student to use speech-to-text software to help with writing. Most students can listen and speak many grade levels above their reading level. Allow them to use Siri, Cortana, or whatever they’ve got to dictate assignments. They still have to use correct punctuation and grammar, but you’ll find that you get far more out of your students when you facilitate their writing. My own eldest child has dysgraphia—until she hit double-digits in age, she couldn’t read her own writing. If I insisted that she use a pencil to complete an assignment, I might get one or two sentences. If I allowed her to type, I’d often get half a page, or more. Learn what devices your students are using, and figure out how to turn on the accessibility features.

Provide your slide deck to students. Your slide deck should contain slides with vocabulary highlighted, their definitions prominent, with an example.

  • Use visuals, wherever appropriate--why? Watch this.
  • Minimal is best. You do not win awards for the prettiest slides--and it can be distracting to students.
  • Insert blank slides at strategic points.
  • Put your labels on the item, do not ask students to go back and forth on the screen. More here
  • No more than five words per line, and no more than five lines per slide
  • It should be high contrast, with large font
  • You should never just read your slides, although you should read your slides for students with print issues. 
  • A good slide deck is a linear outline of the lesson. You're organizing the information for them.
  • When you provide that slide deck to your students, you’re providing them with typed notes they can easily transform into flash cards for retrieval practice.

Train students to complete your assignments. Give step-by-step instructions, and visually share your screen using a student view of the material during a live lecture so they can ask questions. "See this link I'm circling in red? Click here." If you can’t, make a recording they can watch. If you can’t do that, make a phone call and go over the steps together, checking that the student is looking at what you’re looking at during the conversation. Even a voice message is better than just handing off written instructions.

Then—and this I learned from parenting—have them repeat the instructions back to you. It is shocking how rarely students are attending well enough to be able to tell you what they need to do. Children with dyslexia often have ADHD or other issues when make it difficult for them to repeat something in the right order, much less understand what they’re saying. When they can’t, go over it again, until they’ve got it—and make sure they’ve got it in writing so they can refer back to it later.

Make sure they know the standard to which they’re being held. Disappointed by shoddy work? Did you explicitly tell them what you wanted? Give them a sample of a good, completed assignment? Model completing the work? Provide a rubric with a grade break down? Review the rubric, and what made a good assignment good? Or a bad assignment bad?

Do not overload them. Break assignments into small steps.
  • download notes
  • open notes in Microsoft Word/Google Docs
  • open your textbook
  • in notes, read the first word to be defined
  • read your textbook until you find that word
  • copy the definition from your textbook into your notes page
  • repeat

Make sure that your grading standards reflect your priorities. Because I don’t teach English or literature, I don’t take off significant numbers of points for spelling, or even grammar. “Pythagorum” theorem is fine, as long as they can use it. Because I have better things to do than sit around and print off papers to mark up—and so do you—I accept alternative assignments, and I make as many assignments auto-grading as possible. Point and click is best when a child can’t hold a pencil.

Use assignments with visual elements. Every week, I create slide decks with labeled diagrams. Every week, I assign diagrams for students to label. Every week, I assign skeleton notes that involve labeling things. Every week, my students add dates to a visual timeline. Using these visual elements helps students with print issues immensely—they make knowledge more concrete in students’ minds. Don't go overboard.

Link to videos and simulations on websites. When I create a week’s worth of assignments, I carefully select videos/simulations that cover all of the key information for the week. Many students with print issues can use the captions to increase their reading ability—and access the information in an audio-visual format when it’s good for them. I do not require them to watch the videos, but I do provide them.

Create flash card decks with visuals. There are several good websites/apps that use interval spaced, interleaved retrieval practice, such as Anki or TinyCards, but they can be expensive, and not all students are able to access them. Nearly all students can cut up pieces of paper and draw pictures on one side. Help it along by providing the basis for those pictures in your slide deck.

Use online discussion boards to prepare for short-answer essays. Using the discussion boards for retrieval practice is a 2 for 1 move anyway, but students with print issues also often have issues with writing. Give them a leg up by preparing them to support their answers in ways you want them to write on your essay exams.

Give them skeleton notes to complete. This tells them exactly what you find important, allows for a little retrieval practice as they fill in the notes, and helps them organize the information in their own minds—because you’ve done the organization for them in the notes. Again, organization is often difficult for students with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties. Include the visuals from your assigned sketches and your slide deck in these notes. Review those notes together, when possible.

Assign consistent types of assessments. Students do better when they can focus on the content instead of the context. Always want their low-stakes weekly quizzes to be matching and multiple-choice? Good ideas—do it every time, and if you’re going to switch it up, let them know in advance.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Theory Into Practice in the Online Classroom

This post and the others that follow it will attempt to show teachers how you can translate research-based strategies into practice for online K-12 classrooms. I'm not an expert, I don't have a PhD, and I'm not an instructional designer. This is simply how I interpret this given my extensive experience in online education.

Today's post is based on: Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know

In the online classroom, “lessons” are deceiving. I do not think of my lectures as lessons. I don’t lecture daily. Instead, I chunk by the week, with all work during the week supporting 2-4 concepts. Therefore, while I do some review at the beginning of online, synchronous lectures, I do not expect that those would be sufficient for this kind of review.

Principle 1: Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning: Daily review can strengthen previous learning and can lead to fluent recall.

Rosenshine suggests: Correct homework.

  • Assign problem sets that students can easily self-check (because they’re copying the concepts out of the book)
  • Assign work that is automatically checked (as in math problem sets that give immediate feedback as students work problems)
  • Participate in the online written discussion and correct mistakes. “Good attempt, but actually …”

Rosenshine suggests: Review the concepts and skills that were practiced as part of the lesson.

  • create PDFs of diagrams/sketches that I ask students to fill in
  • assign vocabulary for inclusion in students’ Leitner boxes for daily review
  • create an optional Quizlet deck for the week
  • create a knowledge organizer for the week and hand it out in PDF format for students to use for self-checking
  • review concepts and skills during synchronous lecture
  • assign questions in online, written discussion boards that use the vocabulary
  • structure my lectures so that I explicitly scaffold required prior knowledge and skills for new concepts.
    • For example, when my algebra one students learn about adding rational expressions with unlike denominators, I start by reviewing adding basic fractions with unlike denominators. These slides are then added to the week’s assignment folder so that students can go back and review steps as needed. I do this so often that my students start groaning when they see me reviewing old material, because they know that new, hard work is coming up.

Rosenshine suggests: Ask students about points where they had difficulties or made errors.

  • Ask at the beginning of every synchronous session for questions that students had difficulty with.
  • Use software that conducts data analysis that lets me see when students commonly miss problems, how long they spent on individual problems as a class, and pinpoints common errors.
  • Encourage students to submit scratch work (in math class) in PDF or .jpg format so that I can easily see where students make mistakes.
  • Encourage students to email me with problems that had difficulty with, so that I can model working the problems during the next lecture.

Rosenshine suggests: Review material where errors were made.

  • Begin lectures with me modeling commonly missed homework problems, as per automatically checked homework sets in math, or as revealed during online written discussions.
  • I use a direct instruction math program (Saxon Math) that already uses an 80/20 (80% review, 20% new) format, so that interleaved, interval-spaced review is built into the program.
  • Introduce new material by showing previous skills and highly common mistakes.

Rosenshine suggests: Review material that needs overlearning.

  • Begin lectures by reviewing overarching concepts. For example, when my students were studying classification in biology, every lecture began with a group recitation of all the classifications that we’d learned so far.
Principle 2: Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step: Only present small amounts of material at any time, and then assist students as they practice this material.


  • Use a direct instruction math program (Saxon Math) that already uses an 80/20 (80% review, 20% new) format, so that interleaved, interval-spaced review is built into the program. Every problem comes with the ability to see a worked example as needed. Students can also email me for direct assistance, and send anonymous requests to be reviewed during lecture.
  • Scaffold a five paragraph essay over six weeks, each step small with worked models available. More here.
Principle 3: Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students: Questions help students practice new information and connect new material to their prior learning.


  • Use an I Do/We Do/You Do model for mathematics and ask students to gradually take responsibility by telling me how to do the problems in the text chat box. Then I assess using polls with pre-built slide decks.
  • Require students to complete skeleton notes with analysis questions.
  • Have students self-assess their learning and review material if a large percentage indicate they’re confused.
  • Write online, written discussion board questions that explicitly connect material with daily life.
Principle 4: Provide models: Providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn to solve problems faster.


  • Use faded, worked examples in mathematics slide decks for live, synchronous lectures. These faded worked examples (with completed problems after the partials) are made available to students on a weekly basis.
  • Model questions for science fair projects, walking students through a theoretical project as we go during live lectures that are recorded for students to review. I have students submit their developed questions, research categories, and hypotheses for feedback on a weekly basis.
  • Model essay parts on slides that are then made available to students in each week’s assignment folder. Students work from an explicit, sentence-by-sentence model to create their own essays.

Principle 5: Guide student practice: Successful teachers spend more time guiding students’ practice of new material.


  • Use a direct instruction math program (Saxon Math) so only one or two new ideas are presented per lesson, and only two lessons per 50 minute lecture. Ideally, I'd do a 20-25 minute lecture per day.
  • I present new material by working problems for the students, narrating my thought processes aloud while answering questions from students in the chat box. Then, I put partially worked problems up on the slides and have students tell me what to do next. Finally, I’ll put an unworked problem up and give students time to work it individually before I ask for their answers all at once.
  • Have students practice daily memorization for given terms and definitions.
Principle 6: Check for student understanding: Checking for student understanding at each point can help students learn the material with fewer errors.


  • Assess using polls with pre-built slides with multiple-choice questions.
  • Deliberately make mistakes when working problems and ask students to find the mistake.
  • Use online, written discussion questions to tackle the concepts from a different angle and reveal mistaken thinking.
  • Assign weekly, low-stakes quizzes to assess understanding.
Principle 7: Obtain a high success rate: It is important for students to achieve a high success rate during classroom instruction.


  • Teach only two or three new concepts per day during synchronous instruction.
  • Allow students to work towards mastery during math homework assignments. Students can attempt each problem three times; if it is still incorrect another, similar problem is made available and students can attempt that problem three times, and then once more. If students still wish to improve their score, they can go back and repeat the process once homework has been submitted.
  • Provide opportunities for revisions for writing assignments. Every writing assignment can be turned in early, and I will mark it up as if I were grading it, but not grade it. Students can then revise for the actual submission. After submission, students who make less than an A can use my feedback to revise their writing assignment to increase their scores.
Principle 8: Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks: The teacher provides scaffolds with temporary supports and scaffolds to assist them when they learn difficult tasks.


  • Model assignment completion during synchronous lecture, complete with teacher talk, “and I see that this is divisible by 3. Students, how did I know that? Right, good, and then I use a? A factor tree, excellent…”
  • Provide explicit directions, including weekly and daily checklists for assignments.
  • Provide extensive grading rubrics in advance so that students know precisely what is expected.
  • Provide examples of good work from previous students. “Here’s a great timeline someone did last year. Isn’t this nice? Note that they ….”
  • Explicitly teach students to look for common mistakes. “OK, class, what do you think the trickiest part of this problem is? What is the most common mistake?”

Principle 9: Require and monitor independent practice: Students need extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automatic.


  • Assign extensive math sets (30+ problems per day) for completion, and check for completion every week. Every failed assignment and every missing assignment gets a note home to parents.
  • Assign two or three pieces of independent work daily, and use the Friday assessment to judge completion. The questions on the Friday assessment are not difficult if students have completed the daily assignments.

Principle 10: Engage students in weekly and monthly review: Students need to be involved in extensive practice in order to develop well-connected and automatic knowledge.


  • Assign weekly low-stakes math quizzes that cover old material. Generally, nothing on the quiz comes from that week’s work. Instead, it should all be review from the prior month.
  • Assign and grade low-stakes online, written discussion questions that explicitly connect previous knowledge in different ways that I cover during synchronous lecture.
  • Assign timelines that students add to weekly to help students put knowledge in chronological order, reviewing material as they go.
  • Assign daily memory (flash cards and recitations) work for explicit, intensive concept and vocabulary practice.
  • Assign and grade math journals that ask students to create goals for improving knowledge, skills, and abilities, and design a practice improvement program.
  • Assign and grade weekly, low-stakes content area quizzes that review that week’s concepts and vocabulary.