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Online Learning

5 Easy Ways to Infuse Learning Science into Remote Teaching

These practices will help engage students and improve outcomes throughout the online learning process.

student working on laptop

In my experience, the key to successful online learning — or any learning for that matter — is recognizing that durable, long-lasting and serviceable knowledge is acquired when there is increased cognitive effort. In the world of remote or online teaching, that's not always easy to achieve.

The reality is, if there is a shortcut available, most students will happily take it. That's just human nature. Over the past 19 years I've spent delivering online courses, I've come to appreciate that if students see resources as unnecessary, they will simply bypass them. They'll skip readings or skim them in order to complete the homework questions. They will tune in and out of presentations. And while this might be enough to achieve a passable grade on an assignment, I found that a good portion of these same students would end up failing a high-stakes assessment.

In recognizing these challenges early on, I undertook a personal journey to learn everything I could about how to teach effectively. In full disclosure, I am not a learning scientist, but through research and a good deal of trial and error, I've come to realize that even small changes can have a significant impact. Here are five practices that have transformed the way I engage students and maximize outcomes throughout the learning process, all of which are relevant whether you're teaching in a traditional classroom environment or remotely.

1) Generation

Designed to prime students for learning, generation is the process of thinking about and struggling with a concept prior to being formally introduced to it. This is a powerful method to facilitate the creation of knowledge pathways in the brain by connecting course concepts in different ways.

I start each section of my syllabus with a real-world problem that requires students to think about how they could solve it, even if they do not yet have the tools to do so. This approach has another more subtle benefit: It serves to create a "curiosity gap" by giving students a preview of what they don't know, instilling the motivation to want to go further and continue learning.

2) Elaboration

This is the process of summarizing concepts in your own words and connecting these concepts to prior knowledge. I end each section of my syllabus with a discussion question that I call "Elaborate and Connect." This is where I give students time and space to answer some leading questions about the concepts I've just covered and to relate how they connect to previous material. 

As you can imagine, it is critical that my courses are well-organized and intuitive in order to guide students through this process. My slide decks have questions integrated throughout so students can get the experience of learning a little and then practicing before moving on, giving them a chance to consolidate their knowledge. The homework assignments give students additional practice with the concepts and give me the opportunity to identify any learning gaps or misunderstandings. The insights I gain from these interactions help me clarify what students know and don't know so I can focus on the topics that require more instruction.

3) Retrieval Practice

Asking students to recall facts from memory is called retrieval practice. Deliberately recalling information forces students to step back and examine what they actually know. It requires effort and struggle, which serve to strengthen memory while helping individuals identify potential gaps in their own knowledge.

I implement this practice by incorporating quick checks throughout any assigned readings. After students read or watch a video, I require them to answer a simple question. This gives them an opportunity to practice retrieving information and is particularly helpful in the lead-up to a summative assessment, like a weekly quiz or exam.

Here again, good organization is essential. I organize my content by units that are aligned to tests, so my students always have a clear learning goal in mind. If I have six tests in a semester, I divide the content into six units. Each unit contains an overview for the module, a submodule for each section, a review of the key concepts from the unit, a set of review problems for the unit, and a test. Within section submodules, I give an overview of the objectives, activities for students to engage with and learn the content (reading assignments, videos, animations, homework problems), and a discussion question. I also include modules on getting started with the course, the technology we'll be using as well as tutoring information and resources.

4) Spaced Practice

Spaced practice is the process of returning to a topic periodically over time. I employ this tactic by adding questions on each homework assignment that students missed from earlier tests or returning to concepts from earlier sections that are essential to the course. I add only a few questions from previous material to each assignment at a time.

I use the Top Hat platform to customize and centralize online content for my courses. It allows me to tailor the questions I use for spaced practice and other techniques by embedding them directly into reading assignments and in my live presentations. I also get the added benefit of data-driven insights that help me zero in on the concepts my students are struggling with most. Whatever platform you use, spaced practice is a powerful way to reinforce learning and prepare students for higher-stakes assessments.

5) Interleaving

Another tactic I use based on learning science is interleaving, which is the process of mixing up your assignments with similar but related topics. Rather than block practice where students work on the same type of problem using the same approach, I intersperse a related type of math problem that requires students to retrieve different approaches and different types of information from their brains.

Information recall during the interleaving process is often low at first. But what is interesting is the impact over time. A week after students have engaged in the process, I have found their information recall is nearly three times better in comparison to their recall of the same material if they aren't engaging in interleaving. Understandably, it can be frustrating for students to not feel that usual sense of mastery that comes with the blocked learning process. So I like to remind them that the struggle itself is an indication that they are on the road to mastery, even if it doesn't necessarily feel that way in the moment.

Implementing these small changes in your remote learning environment gives students the much-needed opportunity to reconstruct their memory over and over again and in different ways. It also gives instructors the chance to unlock insights to understand where their students are progressing well and where they are struggling.

For learning to take place, it must be effortful. The ultimate goal of these tactics is to lead students to deeper, longer-term learning. These strategies overcome the illusion of competence which can occur when students are familiar with the text. They can also help to instill the tenacity and grit that is so important to success in higher ed and beyond.

Learn More

Here are some of sources I recommend for further reading on learning science:

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