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Remote learning has pitfalls, but we can still help students be successful in this challenging time

Even when faced with major disruptions in learning, children are resilient and tend to catch up in skill development if they have a supportive environment later.

A Chicago Public Schools student types on a computer keyboard.
Chicago Public Schools is set to begin remote learning on Monday, April 13.
AP file photo.

Next week, more than 355,000 Chicago Public Schools students will begin remote learning. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers, students and families to make quick adjustments into new daily roles and routines.

Some families may be undergoing such profound stress that students cannot do any schoolwork at all. For other students, schoolwork may provide some stability and a sense of purpose for their future.

The good news is that even when faced with major disruptions in learning, children are resilient and tend to catch up in skill development to where they would have been, as long as they enter a supportive environment after the disruption. Students who have a smaller gain in learning in one year tend to have a larger gain in the following year.

As the district, teachers, and families figure out the strategies that work best for them, there are lessons from research conducted under normal conditions that may be helpful in this unique situation.

Countering the limitations of online Instruction

Research indicates that most students learn better when instruction is in person, rather than online, and students with the lowest achievement seem to benefit least from online classes. Even if online instruction isn’t as effective as face-to-face instruction, it is still effective for most students, and better than no instruction.

One reason students sometimes struggle with online learning is because of a lack of flexibility in what is taught. While online classes are usually self-paced, course content can feel rigid. In a study comparing online to face-to-face algebra credit recovery classes, researchers found that face-to-face teachers adjusted the content of their instruction considerably more than online teachers, even though the online teachers had the technology to be able to offer mini-tutorials and respond directly to students’ questions.

It was easier for the in-person teachers to recognize when students needed help and adapt their instruction accordingly. In fact, when students taking the algebra course online had access to a supportive math teacher in their computer lab, they ended up with similar pass rates as students enrolled in face-to-face versions of the same class.

All of this suggests that online learning places more demands on teachers around intentional communication with students and their caregivers.

Communication among teachers, students, and families is even more critical now

Another downside of online instruction is that it makes two-way communication more cumbersome. Teachers can’t anticipate how all their individual students will respond to instructional tasks, and the feedback they ordinarily get in the classroom as they watch and listen to students engage with the material is vital information for doing their jobs well.

Students feel supported when they believe their teacher knows how they are doing in the class and gives them the support they need to succeed. Without having students in front of them, teachers may not know when they are assigning work that is taking longer than it should to complete and when students feel stuck or overwhelmed. They also will have difficulty recognizing when students are under-challenged or disinterested.

It can be easier for people at home to see whether students need more support, whether work is taking too long, or if students feel under-challenged. To support learning at home, teachers and families need to be in regular communication, whether they have the technology for face-to-face online chats, or are reaching out by phone, group chats, texting, etc.

Even when assignments are not being used for grades, teachers can monitor assignment completion as a signal for who might need help, modifications, resources, or a more personal connection.

Learning is more than test scores — it’s also social and emotional

Brain science has shown that learning has both social and emotional components—people are not computers who can input information and retain it without making an emotional connection and seeing how it fits with their other experiences.

Teachers and caregivers who are supporting learning at home need to talk to students about how they are experiencing the work. Do students believe they can succeed at the task? Do they feel the work is relevant? Do they feel they will learn and grow from the experience?

Students’ confidence that they can succeed at their school assignments, and that the work has value, provides a sense of security and motivation.

What happens in the long-term will matter most

There is no clear roadmap for teachers, parents, and guardians right now. Nobody is going to be perfect in how they are able to support students, even as they all work very hard to do so. The crisis is causing acute immediate stress — from sharing confined space and home technology, to worry about severe financial and health effects on ourselves and others.

There will also be long-term stress from the financial fallout of the crisis and the loss of loved ones. Families will not have all the financial and emotional supports that they did previously, and inequities in education will become more extreme.

Supporting all students ultimately means making preparation so that students have a safe, stable school environment that is responsive to the social-emotional needs of every child when they go back to the classroom.

Elaine Allensworth, PhD, is director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

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