Instructional Strategies for Successful Virtual Lessons
Last week, I presented some best practices for facilitating a successful virtual meeting: checking your technology, creating a professional background, having resources available, using engaging tools and structures, and determining next steps and making sure to follow through. Likewise, participants can contribute to successful meetings by using best practices of their own. Most importantly, the length and quality of attention a person brings to a task is entirely dependent on the task and what the individual brings to the situation.
“How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation.”
A lot of sources talk about how our attention span is decreasing as our use of technology, social media, and the internet increases. A BBC article I find very interesting debunks that notion, digging into the source of the research that stated our attention spans are shorter than that of goldfish now and finding very little to back it up. The author also talks to Dr. Gemma Briggs, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University in the U.K. She says that the amount of attention we have “will vary depending on what the demand of the task is” and that “how we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation” (Busting the attention span myth, BBC, March 2017). This means that the intention and commitment we bring to a task, such as a virtual meeting where we may not even be seen or heard, greatly influences our attention span and, therefore, the amount of information we gain. While facilitators can focus on providing high-quality information using engaging meeting structures, participants can focus on paying close attention and getting the most out of the information presented. The big question is how to do that. With phones and internet readily available, what can participants do to show their commitment and keep themselves accountable to what’s happening? Below are 4 tips for being an engaged user of any virtual meeting platform, whether one-on-one or in a group.
Problems of Practice
The problem of practice strategy is a protocol for presenting a challenge to peers and then having structured discussions and feedback. The general protocol is that the speaker or presenter explains their challenge or problem and then their peers ask clarifying questions. The speaker then must listen (he or she can take notes but not speak) while their peers discuss the challenge, offer different perspectives, and provide potential solutions. The last part of the protocol is when the speaker gets to join the conversation, respond, and reflect on the ideas. This protocol is most often used by teachers and administrators for solving tough challenges in their work, but students could also use this protocol with each other to discuss complex topics, work on problem solving an issue, explore an argument, and/or navigate personal studying challenges. This strategy lends itself well to a virtual setting because of the structured roles and pace.
Writing workshops come in many forms and protocols but generally revolve around analyzing a piece of writing as a group. One of the great things about them is that you can use a published excerpt or student work as the focus piece. The instructor or professor presents the piece, which students may have read and started analyzing independently for a published work or may be seeing the piece for the first time if it’s a student sample (please note: students should give permission to use their work as a sample or professors should do so anonymously by using a typed version without identifying information). The professor might provide a purpose for the discussion: students are analyzing the piece for content, structure, style, language use, perspective, etc. Even in non-literary classes, these characteristics can be analyzed to better understand the texts in their field and how experts go about writing them. In a virtual setting, the piece can easily be shared, dissected, and discussed, and the writing workshop facilitates a richer discussion than simply reading alone or peer editing.
Virtual discussions as a large group can be difficult because not everyone gets an opportunity to speak and body language can’t be seen. Organizing students into smaller pods and giving them separate meeting rooms may provide more equity for students to share their thinking and participate (if your virtual meeting room allows you to start whole group, move into small groups in separate rooms, and then come back together as a whole group, that’s a great resource!). Even if the large group can’t be separated, providing smaller groups of students with their own discussion channels can give students better access to each other and the conversation. Additionally, strategic grouping is greatly beneficial to student learning; students can be grouped by competency and then sometimes mixed heterogeneously and sometimes homogeneously, by topic of interest, by skill you want them to hone, by the text they read or were assigned, and a myriad other ways. Vary your groupings throughout the course based on students’ needs and interests.
In terms of assessments, exposure to testing content and conditions can greatly benefit students’ learning and help them perform better on the actual exam. Hosting a webinar or meeting where students can practice with sample test questions may help retention and ease their nerves. The instructor can present questions and students can submit answers for more formal practice or do a “Think Pair Share,” where they formulate their own response or answer, discuss with a partner, and then some pairs share their thinking with the whole group, for more discussion-based practice. Confirming their correct and incorrect answers with a partner before speaking to everyone builds confidence and often elevates great questions. With either approach, students get to practice the content and receive feedback before they take the assessment.