Teaching From Our Research Center

How the Pandemic Prompted Teachers to Give Students More Flexibility, Choice (in Charts)

By Benjamin Herold — May 10, 2021 6 min read
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For those who have long sought to give students more “voice and choice” inside the country’s K-12 classrooms, the devastating coronavirus pandemic appears to have had a silver lining.

More than half of teachers now offer students more flexibility in how they choose to complete assignments, more opportunities to revise and re-submit their work, and more ways to participate non-verbally in class discussions, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers administered by the EdWeek Research Center.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is really good news,” said Joseph South, the chief learning officer for the International Society for Technology in Education and a former director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education. “It shows that in addition to massive disruption, there was also innovation happening.”

Other experts consulted by Education Week voiced similar sentiments. The idea that students now have more ways to show what they know is a good thing, they said—especially for students who are still learning English or have special needs or have struggled in traditional school. Also encouraging is that educators appear to be focusing less on seat time and more on whether students have actually mastered classroom material. The instructional changes uncovered in the EdWeek survey should increase student learning while decreasing student anxiety and stress, said Allison McCarthy, the vice president of program design for Teach for America.

Not all the findings were promising: Three in five teachers said they’ve relaxed their grading policies, a sign that academic rigor was likely de-emphasized this school year, providing another reason to worry about the possibility of widespread learning loss. Nearly two-thirds of teachers also told EdWeek their students now spend less time working with a partner or in groups.

Still, America’s schools should be looking to build off of the quiet successes that have emerged during a difficult year of mostly online and hybrid instruction, said Patricia Hilliard, a research scholar at the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.

“Remote learning has received so much bad press,” she said. “But this is also a great opportunity to advocate for changes that will better support students.”

Following is a summary of key findings from the EdWeek Research Center survey, administered online in March and completed by 386 teachers.

1. 55 percent of teachers said they’re giving students more flexibility in how they choose to complete assignments.

If you’re assessing writing, then students should write. But if teachers want to know whether their students understand a math concept or a literary metaphor or a historical theme, why not let them record a video of their problem-solving process, or explain their thinking verbally, or post a meme to a class discussion board?

As long as they’re learning, students should be encouraged to use a variety of mediums to document and show what they know, said Hillard of the Friday Institute. That’s especially true for English learners and students with certain special needs, who often grasp material but may struggle to explain their answers verbally or in writing.

“I see this as extremely positive,” said Hilliard, who said that over the past year she’s given her own graduate students the chance to demonstrate what they know by writing papers, participating in Twitter chats, creating Flipgrid videos, and recording themselves leading group activities.

2. 54 percent of teachers said they’re giving students more opportunities to revise and resubmit work.

Remote and hybrid learning has been full of challenges, from spotty attendance to limited technology access to the trauma and emotional difficulties many students have experienced outside school.

The fact that teachers appear to have adjusted by letting students revise and improve their work is encouraging for two reasons, said McCarthy, who oversees training and supports for thousands of Teach for America corps members and alumni.

First, she said, recognizing that students are human and responding in nurturing ways to their experiences and difficulties has likely promoted healing while diminishing unnecessary anxiety.

In addition, offering more opportunities to revise and resubmit work also reflects how students actually come to understand classroom material—and represents a strategy TFA was encouraging even before the pandemic.

“Learning is an iterative process,” McCarthy said. “The idea that there’s only a one way timeline or pathway to reach an instructional goal is something we generally reject.”

3. 59 percent of teachers said they’ve relaxed their grading policies.

Some observers will likely worry that all the additional flexibility for students could reflect a decline in academic rigor and an easing of academic standards. For them, the finding that most teachers report relaxing their grading policies over the past year is likely cause for concern.

But the experts consulted by EdWeek urged against jumping to conclusions.

“This is definitely one that could go either way,” said South of ISTE.

“If teachers are relaxing grading policies because they’re overwhelmed, can’t keep up, and don’t want to punish students for the system being unable to teach them, that’s not a win for anyone,” he said. “If, on the other hand, they’re focused on giving students good feedback that’s specific and actionable, and they’re emphasizing mastery and learning over a grade, that could be a positive sign.”

4. 42 percent of teachers said they’ve decreased time spent on lecturing.

While the experts consulted by EdWeek were generally not big fans of lecturing as an instructional strategy, this was another data point they said was open to interpretation.

“If less time was spent on lecturing, then what was it spent on instead?” asked Hilliard. “I would hope it was spent on students working with friends or investigating a subject they’re passionate about it. But the fear would be that teachers just did their lectures and then stopped teaching.”

5. 65 percent of teachers said they’ve decreased time spent on group/partner work.

Given the sudden shift from face-to-face to online learning, the limitations of many ed-tech tools, and the persistent lack of training for teachers to use technology to improve instruction, this data point wasn’t surprising. But it was alarming, said South, who said the academic and social-emotional benefits of students working together are well-documented and that classrooms had been making good progress on this front prior to the pandemic.

“We can do better,” South said. “What I hope happens in the future is that we improve our tools for online group collaboration and we help teachers understand how to design opportunities for collaboration into those systems.”

6. 67 percent of teachers said they increased the degree to which they encourage non-verbal class participation (via chats, private messages, etc.).

The most frequently-reported change by teachers responding to the EdWeek survey highlights the ways new and better technology—and enhanced teacher comfort with using it—can support learning, especially for students from historically marginalized groups.

Creating more varied opportunities for students to communicate with teachers and with each other is essential to making classrooms more equitable and inclusive, said McCarthy of TFA. And now that teachers have implemented strategies for making it happen and seen the resulting benefits, they’re unlikely to want to let go of them.

“This is something we absolutely want to continue,” McCarthy said. “We want to continue to reimagine what schooling can look like. This kind of flexibility and accessibility doesn’t just have to be for virtual learning.”

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