Despite the explosive growth of online learning, there is a shortage of research that examines the effect of instructional strategies on student academic outcomes in an online learning environment. To address this void, the Marzano Research Laboratory (MRL), undertook a study to evaluate the relationship between student learning and effective teacher pedagogical practices with respect to the use of online instruction.
About the study
The study, A Study of Best Practices in Edmentum Online Solutions, specifically looked at Edmentum’s online solutions in three instructional settings—pure virtual, blended, and classroom/lab—across four purposes: original credit, credit recovery, intervention, and Advanced Placement®.
The study identified 13 best practices found to be significantly related to higher levels of student achievement in an online learning environment. These practical behaviors can help teachers effectively engage in an online or blended environment. Here are the 13 best practices identified in the study with insight into how you can implement them.
Marzano Dimension: Strategies involving routine events
1. Communicating course/assignment rules and procedures
Clarifying your expectations is key to classroom harmony. Think about it. If you didn’t know to file your income tax return on April 15, wouldn’t you be late every time? The concept is even more applicable to children. If they don’t know what the rules are, they will probably do the opposite.
Just like any other school skill, mastery of classroom procedures is required for success—in this case, success that lasts the whole school year. Any ambiguity can lead to confusion and students likely being outside the expectations throughout the school year. Plus, if students willfully break the guidelines, you want to make sure you can prove they knew what they were doing. The same clarification goes for specific exercises and assignments. How can you expect work that fits your expectations if the students didn’t know what those expectations were? You don’t want students not making the grades they (and you) expect because you dropped the ball.
Implementation Tips: Many teachers use the entire first week of school instructing students in just how they want the classroom to operate—everything from procedures for sharpening your pencil to turning in assignments. That kind of thoroughness is central to lasting classroom peace. That same kind of investment needs to be made before any exercise or assignment is started. Depending on the size of the assignment, you want to spend a proportionate amount of time on the expectations. If it’s a large or multipart exercise, break up the expectations into manageable chunks based on the students’ ages and comprehension.
Just like any other lesson, when giving expectations, you want to use best practices, hitting all the modalities. On a pencil-sharpening procedure, actually have the children perform the action. Make written explanations that can both go home to parents and be referenced by the students in their notebooks or folders. Finally, plaster your walls with every rule and procedure that you deem necessary for the success of the class. In an online or virtual environment, make sure you are taking advantage of all the teacher-student communication tools you have at your disposal. Most of these systems have messaging functionality, individual assignment directions and description features, and places for students to take notes for reference. Covering all those bases should eliminate “I didn’t know that” from your classroom vocabulary.
2. Providing students with all materials needed to complete an assignment
Just as we discussed in Tip #1, you cannot expect students to be successful in school if they are not prepared to succeed. Your expectations and procedures have to be clear, but the materials they need to accomplish your goals should also be readily available and easy to access. Think of it this way: you buy a kit to build a wooden picnic table in your backyard. All of the wood is pre-cut, and it even comes with the nails, bolts, and nuts that you will need. However, you don’t have a hammer and wrench and have no means to access them. You’re not going to get very far in building your picnic table.
Implementation Tips: There are numerous ways to make materials accessible to your students, many of which depend on the technology you have available in your classroom. Let’s first talk about the non-technological distribution methods.
If you are relying on paper for most of your materials, keep a bank of file folders in an organizational rack. The folders need to be clearly labeled by assignment. As students work through an assignment, all they have to do is go to the correct folder to access what they need. If students miss a class or two, it’s easier for them to consult the folder for their missing work than to interrupt you in the middle of class.
If you do have some technology at your disposal, there are plenty of free methods to distribute materials, many of which are used in a professional setting. You might have a classroom website where things can be posted and downloaded. Perhaps you can start a folder or a folder system, similar to the physical method mentioned above, on Google Drive. Or you can write a blog post on your classroom blog for each assignment, providing directions and links to needed materials for downloading.
Biggest Challenges: The first thing that can complicate some of the systems above is timing. If you release everything at the beginning of a unit or assignment, there’s nothing stopping the high-performing students from working ahead and then becoming bored when they finish. Release materials on a certain schedule, and you will frustrate any student whose timetable doesn’t match up with yours. The best solution probably is to make your timetable as rigorous as the majority of the class can handle and then set aside some time for individualized help with the struggling students.
The second problem is mostly related to the paper-based classroom, and it’s as old as education itself: “I lost it.” There will always be students whose organizational skills are less than optimal. You can’t make unlimited copies of materials without going over budget. Make it a point of giving some organizational instruction early in the year (during the expectations time of tip #1), and then touch on those ideas throughout the school year.
3. Clearly presenting the goal/objective for each assignment
Although there’s always room for creativity and experimentation in education, a lesson should never be delivered with a “let’s see where this goes” approach. Every instructional day, every task should have a clear goal to accomplish. The idea that the goal should be clear is an important point. Not only should you understand the goal, but so should your students. Just as in a road trip or field trip, you wouldn’t want to leave with a car or bus full of students and not know where your destination will be.
Implementation Tips: A lot of schools and districts mandate that teachers post the day’s learning goals and objectives somewhere on their board but don’t say anything about teachers having to use age-appropriate language in that goal or even discuss it with the students. Just writing the goals on a board is structurally flawed.
Instead, the day should start with a frank, age-appropriate discussion of what you hope the students get out of the day’s lesson, what success looks like in the endeavor, and what they can expect if success is hard to come by. When you transition to a new task, even if it’s under the same goal, remind them of why they’re doing this work. It isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use your board to post your goals. Visuals serve as good reminders throughout the lesson. Just make sure to write the goals in age-appropriate language that is easily understood by everyone in the room.
Students often come into the classroom asking what they’re doing today. In response, you probably spend the first few minutes of class going over the day’s agenda. It doesn’t take much to add in why you’re asking them to accomplish these tasks. When you move to a new task, remind them of the goal/objective.
Biggest Challenges: It will come as no surprise to hear that learners can have short attention spans. If you are in the middle of a multi-day lesson with the same goal or objective, they can feel as if they aren’t making any progress, or they may simply forget the goal. If you find yourself in this position, break up a larger goal into smaller parts that are easy to follow. Still take time to explain the big goal, but cover how the smaller goals fit into the whole. You want to help them feel invested in what’s going on in the class every day.
4. Offering encouragement and positive feedback to students
Too many times, students come to school without much positivity in their outside lives. Compliments and encouragement might be hard to come by. The same sort of experience at school can really serve to shut down a learner from the whole educational experience. By using positive feedback, teachers can be the oasis in the desert for their class. Even if you maintain high standards for your students (and you should), when they meet those standards, you should make a big deal out of it. It could quite possibly be the highlight of their day.
Implementation Tips:The best part about encouragement and positive feedback is that they need not take a lot of class time. Be effusive with your verbal praise. The goal is five positive comments for every negative statement per learner. Quick notes on assignment feedback can also go a long way. For a more time-consuming strategy, don’t be afraid to direct the positivity somewhere other than the student, such as to the parents or guardians. Not only will a good call or email home improve relations on the home front, but also it will be more appreciated by the student than a note or comment directed at them.
Also, remember that anytime is the right time to offer encouragement and positive feedback. Right after the student experiences a success is preferable, but anytime is appreciated. You can even have a time set aside to recognize learners who made big progress or a breakthrough during the lesson. However, some students can be shy about receiving praise in front of others. Make sure you know the students and whether they would appreciate being singled out. You might do more harm than good. Regular communication can be used in place of set-aside classroom time. Technology makes sending messages and emails quicker and easier than ever before.
Biggest Challenges: Frankly, remembering to be positive at a 5:1 ratio can be difficult. Teaching is hard, and it’s easy to be negative on particular days. Just remember that as much good as some positivity can do for the student, it can also help pull you out of a bad day (or week … or grading period).
5. Allowing students to keep track of their learning progress
Ownership is a major part of the education battle. Students need to feel invested in their progress in order to thrive academically. Hearing about that progress secondhand or thirdhand is not an effective way of generating buy-in. All students should know where they stand in your class and the curriculum at all times. They should be able to see the scoreboard so they know when to feel proud about keeping up or know when to step it up to avoid falling behind.
Implementation Tips: Remember the old days when the only way to know where you stood in your bank account was to actually reconcile the checkbook? If you weren’t diligent about balancing, you had no idea how much money you had. Now, it’s as simple as logging in to your bank’s website. Not allowing students constant access to their progress data has the same effect. They have no idea where they stand, so they can’t take the appropriate steps for the desired outcome. So when should they have insight into their progress?—24/7.
Thankfully, most schools and districts employ an online learning management system (LMS) where students can log in to keep track of their grades. If yours is not one of them, make it a point to update students by paper as often as possible. Another option is regular, quick conferences about a student’s status. Not only does this practice keep them informed, but it also gives you an opportunity to accomplish some of your positive feedback from tip #4: Offering encouragement and positive feedback to students.
Biggest Challenges: Accurate classroom data often comes down to one factor: the speed at which the teacher can grade the incoming work. If the teacher is falling behind, the students cannot be kept up to date on their progress. Falling behind can happen to every teacher, but there are things you can do to help stem the tide. Use as much automation as possible, either online or through “clicker” programs. Employ lots of rubrics. They make grading easier and set clear goals for learner success.
6. Accessibility to students via electronic communication as well as face-to-face
The days of teachers lording themselves over students with an air of being unapproachable are gone. Teachers and students need to collaborate in many different ways in order to advance their common goals. That collaboration often doesn’t end with the last school bell of the day. How can you make sure students can ask questions and receive help in today’s connected world without it smothering your free time?
Implementation Tips: First, any communication between teacher and student needs some sort of record that is easily accessible and shareable for accountability purposes. Unfortunately, we live in a time where some teachers have abused their authority in a variety of ways. You want to be able to prove that everything is above board. That being said, most electronic communication would provide that record, even texting with a service like Google Voice. You want to make yourself available where students would be most likely to use the option, which means via text and on social networks. Check your district’s policies before implementing such an initiative, though. The best idea might be Twitter. It’s always available (but easily ignorable) and limits the students to 140 characters, so they have to be concise. As you’ve probably noticed, some students have a tendency to ramble.
It’s important to have a repeatable schedule no matter what communication strategy you choose. Make sure that schedule allows for a personal life outside of school. For face-to-face communication, let students know when you arrive at school and when you leave, and invite them to visit before or after school. Communicating during a student’s class is obviously fine, but interrupting another class is unacceptable. Then, depending on your needs, consider making yourself available electronically at a certain time (preferably during homework time) every night. You can still watch TV or participate in any other off-duty pursuit—just have your phone handy. Also, you are the only one who gets to decide whether something is urgent or can wait until tomorrow. To students, everything is urgent. You will often have a personal matter that takes priority, and you need to remember to exercise the right to your own priorities.
Biggest Challenges: Frankly, some educators are so dedicated that they make themselves available to communicate as often as possible. That creates many social problems as well as generates a higher probability for burnout. In addition, making yourself available can also mean students will contact you with things that aren’t school related. Make sure you model appropriate communication and correct students who want to talk to you about their favorite TV show or the video game they’re playing. There’s nothing wrong with building rapport, but shelve those discussions until a more appropriate time.
Marzano Dimension: Strategies enacted on the spot
7. Monitoring student work
Without an accurate view of student progress, classroom decision making is nearly impossible. Are the learners ready to move to the next unit? Who needs some remediation? Assessments are a good way of monitoring student work. Both formative and summative assessments can be used. The goal of monitoring student work is to find out how much progress the students have made in relation to the initial goals you set. Organizing that progress into a four- or five-point scale can help you and the students see that progress.
Implementation Tips: There are many ways to assess learning without adding to the grading pile. Informal assessment needs to occur regularly during every lesson. Although this type of monitoring usually comes in the form of discussion and circulating the room while the students are working, there are plenty of other informal strategies available. Familiarize yourself with these strategies, and watch the status of the class become increasingly clear.
Empowering your learners to keep their own portfolios of completed work and projects helps engage them in their own progress. Giving the students a broad overview of their progress throughout the year can serve as a powerful motivator. It also gives you evidence of learning during parent conferences and evaluations. Most schools use some sort of online LMS to share grades with students and parents virtually. Try to keep your online gradebook updated as best as you can and leave enlightening comments when possible. Most online curriculum, whether used for enrichment, remediation, or assessment, will have significant reporting capabilities as well.
Biggest Challenges: Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves when it comes to grading, thinking that’s the only way to get an accurate assessment of student progress. If the grading pile is too high, some teachers forego opportunities that could be helpful in informing instruction. Monitoring progress need not involve much grading—or any at all.
8. Knowing every student by name and being able to recognize them outside of the online environment
Learning your students’ names might seem like common sense, but you won’t believe how many teachers are unable to call students by name a month, two months, or even several months after the first day of school. There are various reasons for this, but the bottom line is that it severely inhibits your ability to form a connection with those students who can’t be called by name. For students with difficult home lives, you might be their only chance at forming a connection.
Implementation Tips: Students hate seating charts, especially on the first day of school. However, a great way to learn names is to arrange your students in alphabetical order—by first name. Taking attendance every day at the beginning of the school year gives you added practice in name and face recognition. Don’t move students from those seats until you have everyone memorized! Also, make sure your school utilizes any of the tricks your LMS can provide, like the previous year’s school pictures. Print them out and quiz yourself if you have to. In some systems, you can also arrange seating charts using those pictures.
When it comes to name recognition, teachers might have the bulk of the responsibility, but it’s also important for other personnel to be acquainted with as many students as they can. That can be difficult because a teacher might have a percentage of the students, but principals, media staff, and others are exposed to every child in the school. Still, hearing something positive from the principal in the halls can make a student’s day—especially if he or she is at-risk.
Biggest Challenges: Learning names is not an easy task. You might have as many as 150–200 students. Other staff might see more than a thousand. Adding on the sometimes impersonal approach of certain blended learning strategies, the time to learn names seems to be increasing. But it might be the most important part of your job in the first couple of weeks of the school year. It lays the groundwork for all of the rapport you hope to build as you move through the early part of the year.
9. Allowing students to progress through assignments at their own pace
We all know what it’s like to fall behind in a variety of situations. We also know what it’s like to be faster or more accomplished at something than our peers. In both cases, it can be awkward and distracting. Now, think about how students, who are just starting to find themselves and their talents, would feel in a similar environment. Allowing students to progress through curriculum at their own pace builds confidence and a willingness to persevere.
Implementation Tips: Small-group instruction is usually a go-to strategy to differentiate pace. This either means grouping students of similar abilities or mixing groups to where high-achieving students can help move struggling learners along. Depending on many factors, small groups can be effective. Another strategy is the use of online or computer-based curriculum to supplement instruction. With an adaptive platform, everyone receives the appropriate instruction at the appropriate speed based on their skill level. However, resources and the availability of class time can be barriers to this approach.
Students should not be given the reins to their instruction for a long period of time. It’s simply too disruptive to the curriculum. However, it’s appropriate to accommodate self-paced learning in the course of one assignment or a class period. Just have a plan for the other students to stay busy while the strugglers finish.
Out of all the assessment practices, formative assessment has the most effect on student learning outcomes. It needs to be timely and reflective. This is even more important as you embark on a self-pacing strategy. You always want to know when a student has fallen too far back or is working too far ahead. Formative need not mean formal. Informal assessment is often the best practice here.
Biggest Challenges: Pacing guides are becoming more prevalent as our class time is further compressed by testing and other mandates. We simply need to make sure we cover everything. This makes differentiation of pace a challenge, but it needs to be facilitated whenever possible.
Secondly, the challenge of keeping the fast movers engaged will always be an issue. Spend a great deal of time brainstorming enrichment activities before embarking on a self-paced assignment.
10. Providing help to understand and practice new knowledge
This is why we teach—to help students acquire and master new knowledge. It’s perhaps the most fundamental part of the job. That being said, it might also be the most complicated. Whom do you help? When do you help them? How? Even veteran teachers struggle with these questions. And there is no shortage of pedagogies to try to make sense of these practices.
Implementation Tips: Most teachers prefer some sort of gradual release model, variations on “I do, we do, you do.” It’s here where pacing and formative assessment take precedence. There is, of course, the process of delivering a lecture to present the new knowledge and then using homework to help students practice. Most forward-thinking teachers want to get away from that. There are also approaches that are completely different, like flipped learning. In a flipped classroom, students acquire the new knowledge at home using videos available online or made by the teacher. Then, they come to class in order to practice those skills and receive help from the teacher. The theory is that class time is used for what’s important—practice—rather than rote memorization.
If the curriculum is paced correctly and mastery has been achieved by everyone before moving on, students shouldn’t need help with the next topic. Of course, that’s rarely the case. That’s why it’s important to perform some sort of formative assessment or pretest before every major topic or unit, with more informal assessments coming at the beginning and end of each lesson. You should have the pulse of the class during a lesson as well. It sounds like a lot of work, but a deep understanding of informal formative assessment strategies can be your best friend.
Biggest Challenges:The first barrier to effective practice of new knowledge is simply time. Benchmarks have to be met. Tests have to be prepared for. A lot of administrative minutiae cut into class time. Many times, the lowest performers need to move on for the sake of the rest of the class. The other barrier is a question of differentiation. How do you know where everyone is? Who needs more time? Who’s working ahead, and how far? For many, small groups and online learning can solve these challenges.
11. Allowing students to ask questions during online courses/assignments
A teacher’s dream class is full of bright, inquisitive minds looking to explore the world’s knowledge. Hands always go up. Questions are always thoughtful and on point.
So, you would think that teachers take any question at any time during a lesson in an effort to generate that sort of atmosphere in their classroom. That’s not the case at all. In an effort to stick to schedules and keep an orderly room, questions are often saved until last or not welcomed at all. This is obviously not a model in which to engage young students in the process of learning. Questions should come whenever learners feel the need.
Implementation Tips: There are ways to help students develop questions that help the whole class progress through the content while also keeping questions limited to appropriate times. First, make your expectations clear. State that questions are welcome at almost any time during the class. Ask the class not to interrupt while someone is speaking and to try to keep questions to the topic at hand. Make these policies available and easily visible as a reminder to learners. Second, you need to model the best questioning practices throughout the year. When students are speaking, ask questions that drive the conversation forward. Wait for them to finish a thought before launching in. Correct bad questioning technique whenever you see it.
Many students are shy about asking questions or speaking in class. Instead of forcefully calling on them, introduce some randomness into the procedure by drawing cards or Popsicle sticks with each student’s name on them. Or use Post-it notes and a poster to let students leave a question or comment about the day’s lesson anonymously as they leave the room. Another idea that uses some technology is the idea of backchanneling. Backchanneling is similar to a discussion board; however, it happens online in real time. In the classroom, students can engage in a backchannel chat with their devices while a passive activity, like a lecture or video, is taking place. Students love using their devices so much that you will probably hear from students who have never spoken in class before.
Biggest Challenges: In addition to the reluctance of some students to speak in class, you can also encounter the opposite side of the spectrum—the class clown who will take any opportunity to say something funny. Again, this is a situation where modeling and timely correction can be effective. And just because you allow questions doesn’t mean you will receive any. Quick, informal assessments can help you figure out if learners aren’t asking questions because the content is too easy or because it’s over their heads.
12. Treating all students equally
Let’s be honest—this might be the most difficult best practice in this whole series because it goes against basic human nature. Even the most patient and kind teacher may take a sigh of relief when certain students are absent. Others find it difficult to call on everyone in the class equally, skipping some students for a variety of reasons. Also, some teachers seem to always give the extra opportunities to the students who have demonstrated that they can handle them.
These bad teaching habits just seem to make the days go more smoothly. But for the betterment of every student, they need to be stopped.
Implementation Tips: There are varieties of strategies to make sure that everyone receives equal, random attention in class. Most have to do with ways to randomly draw students’ names out of a hat, dish, etc. It’s important to establish this precedent early in the school year so that everyone knows they can’t hide from your attention. Another tactic is to make it a point of having short student conferences with everyone periodically throughout the school year. It’s a good way to reconnect with students who perhaps haven’t received as much attention recently.
In a blended learning environment, it’s actually easier to connect with every student because of the differentiation capabilities and that there are fewer whole-group exercises. More small-group and individual work means more time for teachers to circulate the room. Just make sure you circulate the entire room. It’s also easier to monitor work, which means there are more opportunities to notice something worth bringing up with students.
Biggest Challenges: First, there are certain students who thrive on attention—usually with negative consequences. The natural tendency of teachers is to deny them that attention, so they don’t call on those students in discussions, and they try to put them in the most benign small group possible. Meanwhile, these students, who are probably masking struggles with their social difficulty, are denied opportunities to progress. Other students are just forgettable. There is nothing notable about them, from their personalities to their dress. They are probably quiet and stay near the back of the room. So, they are occasionally forgotten.
It’s natural for teachers to want to spend the bulk of their time with the students who make teaching worthwhile. These students want to learn and gratefully scoop up any knowledge the teacher drops. They tend to receive the bulk of attention that the previous two categories don’t obtain.
Marzano Dimension: Strategies addressing content
13. Adding external resources to assignments aligned to local objectives
There is no doubt that education has expanded in the past decade or so. Where it used to be that curriculum was centered around a textbook, which didn’t offer much in the way of real-world experiences, now the focus has shifted to immersive educational experiences that better reflect what students will see once they leave school. In this age of information, students are usually spoiled for choice when looking for resources other than what is provided in class.
Yet, some teachers still want to control everything that comes into their classrooms and the resources used to reach their educational objectives. This methodology simply doesn’t reflect the times.
Implementation Tips: It is to the benefit of both the students and the teacher for some filtering to occur when students are seeking outside resources for assignments and projects. If possible, the teacher should provide instruction not only in the curriculum but also in information gathering relative to their subject area. Using a class website, blog, or other link-sharing strategy, teachers should provide acceptable online options for students to consult in the course of their work. It’s not censorship; it’s optimizing the information-gathering process.
Students, particularly those in online learning settings, also need opportunities to unplug. Pointing out the local real-world resources available to further their studies is a great way to get students to venture out. Even providing motivation in the form of extra credit or extra time on assignments could work to get students to experience the outside world. It’s best for students to be able to consult outside resources throughout the course of their studies. After all, in the “real world,” they will be able to research as widely as they want during the progression of career projects without such constraints.
Biggest Challenges: Some resources, particularly online ones, simply aren’t reliable enough to be consulted in an education situation. A good use of time for early in the school year might be to instruct students on how to discern reliable information and resources that their particular subject area considers particularly consistent.
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