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Education Opinion

Five Ways to Boost Student Participation in Remote Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 08, 2020 5 min read
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(This is Part Two in an ongoing series responding to specific teacher questions related to remote learning. You can see Part One here.)

Note: In addition to a recent 11-part series and video offering advice to educators making the transition to remote learning, and a video offering advice to parents (along many more upcoming related posts), I’ve begun a series of short posts responding to specific questions from readers.

Part One dealt with Overcoming Apathy in Remote Teaching.

Today’s question comes from Jill Schneider:

What are ways to keep student engagement up? How do we motivate reluctant learners to continue learning in a virtual environment?

I’ll be sharing multiple posts responding to this question in the coming days.

Five psychological principles

Harry Fletcher-Wood has worked in schools in Japan, India, and the U.K., teaching history and leading teacher development. He’s now a teacher educator at Ambition Institute and the author of Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in Practice. For his next book, he’s spent two years researching the behavioural science influencing student behaviour. You can learn more about it here. You can find his blog at improvingteaching.co.uk; he’s on Twitter as @hfletcherwood.

Around the world, school systems have closed, and teachers have scrambled to get their classes online or provide students with printed work. After all that effort focused on what we want students to do, we face a new challenge: We don’t know how long schools are going to be closed, and too few of our students are completing the tasks we’ve sent home or showing up to online classes. How can we encourage students to “turn up” to remote learning? How can we motivate them to complete the tasks we’ve sent home? And how can we avoid growing the achievement gap while schools remain closed?

I’ve spent the last two years researching the science of behaviour, trying to understand what influences students. In this post, I’ll highlight five psychological principles we can apply quickly and easily to boost student participation. You can read about them in more detail—and the evidence behind them—here, or watch a seven-minute video summarising them here.

1) Help students form habits: Ask them to do one or two simple things regularly

Once students have formed a habit, they’ll keep doing it: The crucial thing now is getting them to form a couple of productive home-study habits. We can help them to do this by giving just one or two clear, simple goals, like “Complete all the tasks you get sent each week” or “Attend every online class.” And we can help make it a habit by asking them to pick a specific context to work in (habits stick when you do something for long enough in the same context: That might be a place, a time or a cue to work. Once students have formed the basic habit, we can make it more elaborate— asking them to respond to feedback, for example—but the habit of turning up is the crucial foundation.

2) Emphasise the chance to see their friends

No one likes to miss out. An important reason for turning up to an online or virtual lesson is to catch up with your friends and still feel part of something bigger than your own household. We can show students that this chance still exists and encourage them not to miss out on the chance to be part of it.

3) Show students that their peers are turning up

This follows from point 2: If you know that everyone else is doing something, it feels pretty clear that it’s the right thing to do (panic buying is a good example!). Whenever you get a positive result—lots of students attend class, lots of students hand in work on time—make sure everyone knows about it. (If the results aren’t positive, keep quiet about them—or highlight positive trends: more students than ever handing in work on time, for example).

4) Make it easy for students to respond, then celebrate their responses

Whenever we identify a barrier to students responding, we need to remove it. For example, if students aren’t responding to the platform/aren’t emailing, is it possible to give them access via cellphones or accept pictures of work via Whatsapp? Whenever we do see progress, we want to emphasise it with students, no matter how small the progress is. We can celebrate them completing work to a high standard, but we can also celebrate a single correct answer or them managing to wrestle the laptop from their little brother and join the class. If students feel like they’re winning, this will give them a big confidence boost and encourage them to keep attending.

5) Plan to relaunch

It takes time to form new habits: maybe six to eight weeks under the best circumstances. Don’t blame students (or yourself!) if they’re slow to form good routines under stressful circumstances. If we expect students to struggle, we can also plan to relaunch things, whenever the chance arises: giving students a fresh start at the start of a new day, week, or semester.

This is a tough situation for students and teachers alike. A little psychology can get us a long way in encouraging students to show up.

Thanks to Jill for her question and to Harry for his response!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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