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Active Engagement Improves Online Instruction During COVID-19

Getting students actively engaged in their remote learning has a difference on the outcomes during a pandemic. That's the basic finding of a research project undertaken at four American Research 1 institutions.

In a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a team of researchers from a number of universities described how students in seven intermediate-level economic courses at four schools performed "substantially worse" on average in spring 2020 compared to spring or fall 2019. There appeared to be no impact that stood out for demographic reasons. However, the approach taken by the instructors did have an effect.

Student data included performance on multiple-choice assessments and responses to a demographic questionnaire that asked about gender, ethnicity, parental education and non-native English speaker status. At the end of the spring 2020 semester, instructors at the various courses responded to a survey about their teaching practices before and during the pandemic and the extent of material coverage during what they called the "pandemic semester."

Six of the seven classes were taught in real time during the remote instruction period with lectures delivered to students in Zoom meetings. The seventh instructor pre-recorded lectures and spent the scheduled class time in Zoom answering student questions.

The "active" elements consisted of two items: the use of polling software or "clickers" and the integration of peer interaction into the virtual classroom, via activities such as think-pair-share, small group work, and collaboration on exams. Students were asked to answer questions or solve problems during the class, not only forcing them to "engage with the material" and also allowing the instructor to see whether or not the students understood it.

According to the results, when an instructor had prior online teaching experience, student scores were significantly higher overall. Students in classes with peer interactions earned scores that were similar to those earned by students in other classes and incrementally higher when the material was taught remotely. The use of polling didn't seem to have any "significant effect" on student outcomes in the pandemic.

Also, while the research team expected to see disadvantaged groups "further disadvantaged" during the pandemic semester, that didn't happen. "We found no statistical evidence of this concern," they reported.

The findings made them "optimistic" about the future of student learning when so much instruction is being delivered online. The report suggested that because spring 2020 gave most faculty "substantial experience" with online instruction, they'd expect outcomes to get even better.

"Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: It Is Not Who You Teach, but How You Teach" is openly available on the NBER website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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