In the classroom, routines support student learning and build efficiency. The same is true with online and distance learning.
At a time when students — and parents — may be feeling a little anxious, overwhelmed, or uncertain about the new school year, routines can provide a sense of structure, stability, and control. Routines let students and parents know what to expect and when. This predictability not only reduces stress, but it improves students’ learning and their relationships with their teachers.
Here are several ways to create more clarity and consistency in online classrooms, and help students feel at ease and valued in an online learning environment.
Clearly post routines and expectations. Students of all ages need explicit instruction regarding the “how to’s” for each teacher’s online classroom. Providing daily or weekly to-do lists can answer common questions and help online learning work more smoothly.
These lists may include items such as:
• What students are learning that day or week
• What tasks they must complete
• What content or materials are needed
• How to access activities and assignments
• Instructions for assignments and grading criteria
• How to get help if they don’t understand something
• How or where to get questions answered
• How and when to submit finished work
• When they can expect feedback on their work and how it will be provided
Just like in brick-and-mortar schools, online expectations and instructions will look different in primary, intermediate, and secondary classrooms. Primary students who are still learning to read, for example, will need more video and visual support to understand and remember expectations. Brief, simple videos made with a smartphone can help meet at least some of these needs.
Be consistent. Students should be able to focus on their schoolwork, rather than agonizing about how to access resources or turn in assignments. So, try to use the same few routines over and over, especially in the beginning. Just like in the classroom, students may need reminders to maintain order online.
Offer one-stop shopping. In each class, try to limit the number of places students or parents must go for information or resources. Create a central repository for learning resources and materials. Make to-do lists downloadable and be consistent about when you provide them. This reduces frustration and questions, and it saves time for everyone.
Make communications easy to understand. When writing or speaking online, aim for simplicity. Use clear, plain words (e.g., “ask” instead of “inquire”), and use as few words as possible. Instead of writing lengthy paragraphs, use subtitles, bullet points, and lists to break up text blocks and quickly communicate ideas.
Be sure to consistently use the same word for the same concept. For example, assignments should always be called “assignments,” instead of referring to them as tasks, homework, and next steps.
If using digital tools, like a video conferencing platform, be explicit about how students should use them. Should they keep their video on so the teacher can see their faces? Should they mute their audio unless called upon, to block out distracting background noises? Should they keep their chat window open so the teacher can communicate non-verbally? Are they allowed to use chat to ask or answer questions from their peers?
Provide a common place for questions. Once this place is identified, teach students to check this “question page” first when they have a question. If they don’t find the answer they need, they can add their question to the page and check it again after a specific length of time to see the teacher’s response. This prevents the teacher from having to spend time answering the same questions over and over. Teachers can also allow students to respond to their peers’ questions but should check the page frequently to confirm or correct as needed.
Teach and uphold positive social norms. Basic online social etiquette, or netiquette, needs to be overtly taught to students, just like classroom expectations.
Here a few questions to consider to help establish these norms and create a positive online learning environment:
• When teaching is taking place live online, how and when should students interrupt the teacher’s instruction to ask a question? For example, should they use a “raise hand,” chat, or emoji feature on the school’s video conferencing platform? Or should they chat online with a peer for clarification before bringing a question to the teacher?
• How should students disagree with their teacher or peers? What kinds of language are they expected to use?
• Are students allowed to work together or are they expected to complete work independently?
• Are students expected to use the same social manners (like saying “please” and “thank you”) online that they are expected to use on-site?
Create a caring community. Online classrooms benefit from routines that help students feel welcome and valued in their learning environment.
Consider which “caring” routines and rituals could be brought into an online classroom, and how these will work.
• Will students be individually greeted each day? How?
• How will they be acknowledged if they make a great contribution?
• If a student gets distracted or appears to be upset, how will that be handled?
• How will birthdays or other special events be acknowledged?
• How will individual feedback be provided?
Just like in a physical classroom, teachers, students, and parents need a consistent, predictable system they can work with. To guide the transition from on-site to online instruction, it is important to clarify learning goals and define what successful learning looks like for each student during this time of change and uncertainty. Then establish the online routines and procedures that will help students achieve these goals.
Hats off to teachers everywhere for having the courage and willingness to consider new ways to serve their students, especially in light of the challenges they and their own families are also currently facing.
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