Applying Promising MBE Research to Learning from a Distance

Applying Promising MBE Research to Learning from a Distance

by Dr. Ian Kelleher

We often say that there is only one, indisputable educational truth: Every day, every student will bring their brain to every class. As schools in the United States and abroad transition to synchronous and asynchronous distance learning, this indisputable truth will remain the same. But equally important to think about is the adult learning brain and the mindset we bring to distance learning.

We have explored promising research around student and adult learners’ domain-specific knowledge, mindsets, metacognition, feedback, memory, cognitive load, and executive function, to name a few. In the past we have focused on the in-person classroom, school or program setting. How can we now pivot and use our collective efforts to help provide high quality whole-child learning experiences from a distance? 

Here is the CTTL’s first set of Research-Informed Teaching and Learning Tips. We hope you find ways to apply them in your context with your students and with your personal voice as a teacher. And, as we journey together, we may gain important insights to help inform the virtual learning of the future.

5 Tips for Teachers

Teaching has suddenly shifted — how can insights from research help us?

There is no definitive research for the “sudden mass switch to distance learning” scenario. But the science of teaching and learning offers suggestions. The following tips might help. 

  1. Emotion and cognition are interlinked
  2. Memory — use the time to make it stick
  3. Formative assessment is your friend
  4. Finally, a chance to work on feedback
  5. Be aware of cognitive load

1. Emotion and cognition are interlinked

The systems in our brain used for emotion and learning are highly interlinked. Emotion impacts learning. A teacher should always work to reduce negative emotions that make learning hard or impossible (eg. identity threat, anxiety) and use positive emotions to aid learning (eg. humor, novelty, empathy, identity validation). This is perhaps the most fundamental teacher strategy — if emotional needs are not met, robust learning is unlikely to happen.

What does this look like now? Emotion is still a vital factor for learning. While we may be focused on our content as being the most important factor, frankly, it isn’t. Rather, it’s helping each of our students be in an emotional place where they can learn. This is hard work, there is no easy answer, and we will often not get it as right as we would like. A starting point is to remember that high quality positive relationships between teachers and students underpin so many of the science of teaching and learning strategies. So make this a priority as you begin to connect with your students.

2. Memory — use the time to make it stick

What do you want your students to know, be able to do, and value this time next year? Reduce the volume of new topics to teach and replace it with more activities to help make what you have already taught stick.

We are close enough to the end of the school year to begin planning for it. A bit of backwards design will help. Figure out what the really important learning goals for the year now are, and which ones you have taught already. Create a plan for spaced retrieval practice so that students will have a chance to practice the main ideas and skills from past units a number of times before the end of the year. Space these practice activities out so students get a bit rusty and forgetful between sessions — although this feels worse, it helps them remember.

3. Formative assessment is your friend

Many of us will create projects for our students as a way to get round the challenges of face-to-face time. Projects are often ineffective as a means of learning and lead to increases in achievement gaps because students often do not know enough to work with sufficient independence. There is a simple fix: use a no- or low-stakes formative assessment to figure out what students know before launching them on a project.

Use this model from Pedro de Bruyckere: Create a five-question short-answer quiz of key things that students need to know or be able to do for the project. Those who score 4 or 5 can start the project right away. Those scoring 3 need some review – have a video, reading or worksheet available. Those scoring 0, 1 or 2 need targeted reteaching — just 10 or 15 minutes targeted at getting them ready for the project, not trying to fix everything they don’t know.

4. Finally, a chance to work on feedback

We know from research that feedback has tremendous potential for improving student performance — and that unless students have a chance to work on that feedback it has little impact. We know that we should build in time for students to work on feedback, but curricular pressure means this time is often squeezed away as we move on to new things. Now is a great time to fix that!

Feedback expert Dylan Wiliam says that feedback should be more work for the student than the teacher. So think about how you can design assignments and a work-flow whereby students get significant time to work on the feedback they get. Set a high bar for the final product, but give students examples of what they are aiming for. Make sure they understand your feedback and know what their immediate next step should be. Manage the emotional climate with care — negative emotions when receiving feedback can shut down learning. Do not give a grade alongside feedback.

5. Be aware of cognitive load

Cognitive load and the limited capacity of active working memory often present a barrier to learning. This is likely to be more of an issue than ever because of unfamiliar schedules, surroundings and resources, more distractions, and torn attention between the demands of school and home or family.

Be mindful of this when planning assignments and offer more scaffolding than before. A scaffold is anything that could exist on a piece of paper or computer screen that means a student does not have to balance so much in their head at once as they try to complete an assignment. For longer assignments and projects, create scaffolds that help students keep track of the steps along the journey to the finished project.

Final word

This transition is likely to be a bit messy, but that is okay. Research offers insights to add to the mix as we all look to find a best way forward, but your professional wisdom, and that of fellow teachers, matters too. Mix these together, plot your best course forward, gauge your impact, and iterate. 

Every teacher’s distance learning situation is unique — in terms of resources, goals, demands on their time outside of school, and so many other factors. So the tips we offer are quite general. Let us know what works for you: share your stories with us on Twitter @theCTTL, and remember to take care of yourself during this challenging time.

Dr. Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, and Head of Research for its Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning. His work focuses on helping teachers translate the science of learning into everyday practices in their own classrooms, and measuring the impact. Ian is the co-author of “Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education,” and co-designer of Neuroteach Global. Ian is the the inaugural Joseph and Kathleen Dreyfuss Faculty Chair for Research, an endowed position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for the lead CTTL researcher.