Saturday / April 13

3 Ingredients for Effective Distance Learning 

When the governor of Massachusetts declared that learning would continue while schools are closed, he added that the creativity of teachers would get us through this quarantine. Indeed, the creativity and hard work of teachers keeping students focused and engaged with learning has been impressiveHowever, we all have to shift our thinking in order to make distance learning work for each student. Teachers are only one third of the equation. Teachers must rethink how to structure learning so that parents and students can develop routines and apply self-direction skills to accomplish the work.  

Learner-Centered Structures 

My granddaughters kindergarten and fifth grade teachers create access and structures for learning with an online “meet up” each morning to introduce the assignments for the day, answer questions, and have students engage with each other. Additional tutoring sessionpersonalize the learningOther elementary teachers create structure by preparing weekly packets for their students with a student-friendly guide (Hess, Colby, & Joseph, 2020) that “orders” assignments from the least to most complex tasksGuides make the learning progression transparent to parents and students; students move on when ready. Grading is replaced with documenting evidence of successful completion.  

Still other teachers create menus offering differentiated “choice” activities for students to complete each week, like this high school unit of study menu for To Kill a Mockingbird (Hess, 2018). Students select which of the required number of tasks they’ll complete. 

An elementary menu might look like the table below. Teachers follow up with a weekly phone call or video chat with each student to discuss what assignments were completed, give feedback, and evaluate progress. Menus provide choices and links to supplemental resources, putting more responsibility on students to direct their learning. 

Menu for week of:                                                                        Choose 1 activity from each subject area 
Reading   Writing/Social Studies  Science  Math  Fine Arts 
Research this topic ____________. 


Click for websites. 


Write down 5 surprising facts you found. 

Interview someone about what school was like when they were your ageComplete a Venn diagram to compare their experience with yours.  Fill water glasses with different levels of water. Gently tap each glass with a spoon. Record observations about how the pitch changes if the amount of water is more or less.  Use objects in your 

 house to make 3  

word problems. Each problem must use a different operation. Then show how to solve each one.    

Video yourself showing the steps needed to make something, like a craft project. Click for ideas. 
Read an informational book or article. Write and illustrate a summary about what you learned.  Write a letter with an illustration to thank someone who helps others. Click for writing template.  Take a walk with your family. Record signs of spring.  Make a prediction about how things will look in 2 weeks. Click for recording sheet.  Estimate how many cylinders you think you have in your house (soup cans, waste basketsetc.). Then count them to verify.  Do something nice for someone. Make a comic strip to tell and show what you did and how the person (or pet) reacted. Click for comic strip template. 

There are many ways to structure distance learning and make it personally meaningful for students—blending virtual face-to-face check-ins with ongoing instructional feedback critical to sustaining learning. Building in peer interactions and checkpoints creates opportunities for continual student engagement. In other words, students must interact and make decisions before they move on. Teachers can structure personalized choices and check-ins in several ways: 

  • Restructure graphic organizers or anticipation guides for reading assignments, requiring partial completion checkpoints before going on to the next step. 
  • Require students to work with peersusing technology (Google slides, flip grid) to give and get peer feedback at certain stages of a project or collaboratively complete a “jigsaw” assignment, such as one-pager (Hess, 2018) for different text selections. 
  • Co-design performance tasks that any content area teacher/student can use, such as this Rhetorical Analysis example (Hess et al., 2020).  

Personalized Routines 

A high school teacher recently shared that only about 60% of his students were consistently joining online sessions and completing assignments. At that rate, how are high school teachers expected to evaluate “evidence” of student learning over the next 2-3 months? Simply put—they cannot. Teachers can design and support learning, but they cannot create personalized routinesHigh school students need to take responsibility for creating their own routines for viewing videotaped lessons posted by teachers, “attending” weekly check-ins, working remotely with peers on more complex tasks, and completing work in a timely fashion. High school students thrive best when assignments are designed for engagement and when parents expect students to “own” the work. 

Parents can help elementary students break down daily assignments to establish a routinesuch as doing most work in the early part of the day, with free time and physical activities mixed in.  Elementary students thrive best with daily check-ins and choices 

Nurturing Self-Direction Skills 

In competency-based (CB) schools, students are expected to identify what learning is required of them, reach out for help when needed, and monitor their progress. Many states include self-direction as an indicator of college/career readinessStudents are assessed on both the application content knowledge and self-direction skills, which are designed into assignments. For example, self-reflection rubrics (Hess et al., 2020) require students to self-assess, documenting evidence of personal learning.  

To paraphrase a recent Katie Martin post, necessity is the mother of all invention. It’s time to invent new structures for learning, tear down ineffective ones, and awaken talents, skills, and passions in our students. Let’s rethink how we can focus on learning, instead of recreating ineffective structures and routines of traditional school that breed disengagement. 

In some ways, school in 2020 BC (Before COVID-19) was easier—students were captive audiences and teachers were available to nag them. Now is the time, especially for high school students, to invest in making learning work for them—to show whether they really will be college and career ready when the dust settles. 

Hess, K., Colby, R., & Joseph, D. (2020). Deeper Competency-based Learning: Making Equitable, Student-Centered, Sustainable Shifts. Corwin 

Hess, K. (2018). A Local Assessment Toolkit to Promote Deeper Learning: Transforming Research into Practice. Corwin 

Martin, K. (March 2020). Learner-Centered Innovation. 

Written by

Karin Hess, author of the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrix, is a former classroom teacher and school administrator with over 40 years of deep experience in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Dr. Hess is recognized internationally as a leader in developing practical approaches for using cognitive rigor, depth of knowledge, and learning progressions as the foundation for curriculum design and assessments at all levels of assessment systems, from developing local assessment systems to state-level grade-level standards and test specifications for large-scale state assessments. Over the years, she has contributed to Maine’s early thinking about how to structure requirements for assessing high school graduation exhibitions and has provided technical assistance to Science Exemplars in the development and annotation of K-8 science performance tasks (, to the Center for Collaborative Education’s Quality Performance Assessment (QPA) initiative, and to Benchmark Education’s Ready to Advance curriculum for Pre-K, using learning progressions in curriculum and assessment design. Her most recent publications include a chapter in the second edition of Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction and Assessment, Pre-K–6 (Hougen & Smartt, Eds., Paul Brookes Publishing, 2020) and A Local Assessment Toolkit to Promote Deeper Learning: Transforming Research into Practice (Corwin, 2018). Karin’s ongoing CBE work has included guiding the development and implementation of New Hampshire’s K–12 Model Competencies and supporting school districts throughout the United States in creating and analyzing the effective use of performance scales and high-quality performance assessments for competency-based learning.

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