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5 Ways to Make Distance Learning Effective for Students

The COVID-19 pandemic caught many students and educators around the world by surprise. It forced all us into our houses, leaving us completely unprepared for distance learning. However, this pandemic didn’t invent distance learning. It merely reminded us what the future for all students and educators will be like.

Why is Distance Learning the Future of Education?

If you take a closer look at the growth of the distance learning trend, you will see that it has been asserting its dominance for quite some time.

Back in 2018, the National Center of Education Statistics reported that:

● 3,674 million students were taking at least one distance education course

● 3,257 million students were taking distance education courses exclusively

The total percentage of students involved in some form of distance education was 35.3%, which is still not a lot but is enough to recognize distance learning as a rapidly growing trend.

However, right now, it is hard to say that distance learning is doing well.

On the one hand, there’s enough research proving that this form of learning is effective, and it is worth to keep investing in it. The World Economic Forum confirms it, saying that students involved in distance learning retain 25-60% more material compared to only 8-10% in the classroom. Besides, it takes such students 40-60% less time to learn because they are doing it at their own pace.

On the other hand, the haste connected to the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed severe underdevelopment in distance learning. And this caused the popularity of this learning format to drop significantly.

The recent update by Education Data confirms it, providing the reasons reported by students and their parents:

● inconsistent instruction

● poor preparation and content

● limited technical knowledge among the educators

● little collaboration

● almost no access to teachers and professors

Because of these reasons, according to the same source, fewer students are enrolling in colleges this fall, as they see no effectiveness in distance learning whatsoever.

How Can Educators Make Distance Learning Effective for Students?

Because of the uncertainty surrounding distance learning, educators around the globe have to put more effort to make the process of teaching more productive.

So, today, we will discuss a few evidence-based strategies that can help educators achieve that and make students more excited about distance learning.

1. Build a Project-Based Distance Learning Program

One of the biggest challenges in online education is maintaining high motivation and productivity among students. That’s why you need an approach that will allow you to keep your students engaged while also bringing more practicality into the process of learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) can be the solution you need in this case.

This approach is student-centered and dynamic. Students get a project to work on for a certain period of time and, in conclusion, have to present a solution to a certain problem.

How to create a project?

To design a project successfully, educators need to follow the Seven Essential Project Design Elements:

Image credit: PBLWorks

Let’s take a look at all these elements one-by-one.

● Design & Plan. When creating a project, start by considering the context of learning (distance learning, in our case) and the skills that you want your students to develop.

● Align to standards. What real-life knowledge do you want your students to acquire when working on a project? Consider all real-life applications of this knowledge that students will benefit from.

● Build the culture. Make sure that the project design aims at the main goal of project-based learning – promoting student independence, open-mindedness, and team spirit.

● Manage activities. When designing a project, provide all the necessary resources, make them available, and set deadlines to organize student work.

● Scaffold student learning. Make sure you support the need of your students to find and use additional resources that can help successfully finish the project.

● Assess student learning. Consider the standards of formative and summative assessment of the knowledge and skills gained while working on the project.

● Engage & Coach. When creating a project, think about your part in it. Participate, support, but not overshadow the efforts of your students.

If the project is successfully designed, your students will be able to considerably level-up their creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills alongside gaining valuable real-life knowledge.

How effective is PBL in distance learning?

There has been evidence of the successful use of PBL in distance learning.

A 2017 study involving 40 students from the Oak Meadow high school in Vermont, USA, has investigated the attitude of the students towards project-based learning when studying remotely.

The survey offered to students to evaluate their thoughts regarding PBL has shown the following results:

● 55% of respondents confirmed they preferred project-based learning

● 73% of students would like to participate in designing a project together with a teacher

● over 50% of students like to work both in a group and alone

● 75% of students named at least one project that was especially meaningful to them in terms of practical knowledge

The results of the studies like this cannot be ignored. Students respond exceptionally well to projects during distance learning. This makes project-based learning a great approach for educators to boost motivation among students and make distance learning more effective.

2. Make Distance Learning Problem-Based

Now, we’ll talk about another method that works quite well to make distance learning effective for students, the problem-based approach.

Problem-based learning is also a student-centered approach. But, compared to the project-based approach, you don’t have to turn a problem into a project for the students to acquire the knowledge.

Problem-based learning can take the form of a simple discussion, in which a teacher asks questions in a certain order that leads students to a particular conclusion. Or, students can work in groups during the lesson to present their solution and debate the opinions of others.

For distance learning, in particular, problem-based learning can bring several significant benefits:

● this approach is focused on comprehension, not facts

● students take a constructivist approach during the discussion, which involves in-depth learning

● this method promotes self-learning and self-awareness

● students learn how to listen and adapt better

With such an approach, they also get a chance to work with writing services and other resources under the educator’s guidance. As a result, this teamwork also strengthens the relationships between the students and their teacher.

How effective is the problem-based approach in distance learning?

One more pre-COVID study from 2017 involving Photography students from the Communication Arts course has shown the positive impact of the problem-based method in distance learning.

The course was built around the Problem-Based Learning via Virtual Learning Environment model, which involved four main components – input, process, output, and feedback.

Image credit: ScienceDirect

The response to this approach was overwhelmingly positive.

According to the findings, students who utilized project-based learning in a virtual learning environment had a higher average learning score compared to other students using this approach in a regular classroom setting.

These results show that the problem-based approach is a perfect fit for distance learning because such an approach makes them feel free from a regular classroom setting. Such a change in perception of the learning environment has a great impact on their ability to retain information, making distance learning more effective overall.

3. Prepare Scripts for Online Interactions

Since we started talking about the virtual classroom setting in the previous point, let’s take a closer look at how you can organize it better to keep students more engaged.

One approach that can help you make distance learning classes run more smoothly is preparing scripts for your online interactions with students.

Back in 2005, when online learning wasn’t as big as it is now, researchers from Germany studied the effects of writing scripts on individual knowledge acquisition in a group of students.

The researchers broke down all online interaction scripts into two types:

● epistemic scripts – specified how learners should approach the task and provided guidance

● social scripts – determined how students should interact with each other

The study showed that social scripts helped distance learners perform better on tests of individual knowledge, while epistemic scripts helped improve the flow of online classes.

This doesn’t mean that you should choose either the first or the second type of script for your online interactions with students. Instead, choose based on the type of activity that will dominate during the class.

Besides, apart from using scripts during the class, you can also send them out to your students if you want to make sure that they retain all the information successfully.

How to find the right tool to prepare such scripts?

When writing a script for your online classes, you need a tool that provides as much interactivity as possible.

Otter.ai goes beyond that, offering educators around the globe numerous benefits, including:

● an innovative note-taking technology

● streaming transcripts of lectures in real-time

● a research interview transcription tool

As an educator, you can share access to Otter.ai with your students and help them access your scripts at any time. Our tool offers complete safety and protection, letting educators take the lead and make distance learning more effective for their students.

4. Improve Information Retention with Spaced Learning

Let’s talk more about how you can help students retain information for longer in the distance learning environment.

After the recent transition to distance learning because of the pandemic, you might have noticed your students become more distracted. That happened because they are forced to study in the environment which they aren’t used to.

Such a quick switch from a classroom to a home setting is confusing to them, and your task as an educator is to guide them and help them learn how to memorize information effectively.

Spaced learning can be a great approach in this case.

When using this method during classes, educators alternate the periods of teaching very condensed learning material with breaks. These breaks can involve physical activities or any other distractions. After a break, the teacher and students recollect the material they’ve already learned.

In the spaced learning method, there is an important notion called the forgetting curve. This curve represents how much knowledge has been lost over time when our brain didn’t put any effort into remembering it. The task of spaced learning is to minimize this curve as much as possible.

Apart from being useful in distance learning, this approach can also be useful to help students prepare for exams without having to cram the night before:

Video credit: Osmosis

In this case, space repetition helps flatten the forgetting curve that will inevitably go down if a student doesn’t apply the knowledge over some time. If a student interchanges the learning time with resting time more frequently, it will be easier to memorize and retain information.

How to choose the optimal number of breaks for better retention?

During distance learning, it’s unreasonable to expect all students to do 10-minute physical exercise after 30 minutes of intense studying. So, in this case, you should apply spaced learning differently.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re teaching your students new material. In a week, they will check their knowledge with a short test. In this case, you should recollect the material that your students have already learned every other day. Here’s why.

An evidence-based study by the University of Dartmouth has found that information retention was best when the lag (the gap between initial learning and retrieval practice) was about 10% to 20% of the entire retention period.

This means that if you want your students to memorize information, you should determine how long you want them to remember it, and then calculate the number of breaks between the information retrieval sessions.

To add to the above-mentioned points, educators should keep in mind that this method should also involve some form of reward and recognition, especially if you’re teaching to a small group of students.

This can be a verbal recognition or something as small as Macy’s coupons. When your students get a reward for their effort, their brain will consider this learning experience positive, prompting them to be even more effective in the future.

5. Encourage Learner Reflection

Speaking about retention techniques, another way to enforce that in the distance learning process is by promoting learner reflection.

Reflective learning involves activities that help students think and analyze what they’ve read, done, and learned. The goal is to make the meaning out of the learning material, which prompts better retention of useful information.

Here’s a practical example of how it can be applied.

Let’s say you want to host a webinar and need to make it more memorable for your students. Instead of simply doing a speech, you can organize a discussion section after every point discussed in a webinar, asking students what they found most interesting in relation to their own experiences and knowledge.

Learner reflection is a great approach for distance learning, and there are quite a few reasons for that:

● students are more self-aware about their knowledge

● they better understand their strengths and weaknesses

● they better understand their learning patterns

Educators can practice this approach every day at the end of the class. Such short discussions draw a logical conclusion and help students retain information and knowledge better.

Get Ahead with These Distance Learning Techniques!

Now it’s more important than ever to apply our collective effort and make distance learning effective and engaging for students around the globe.

As an educator, you can do your part simply by approaching the instruction process a little bit differently. Strategies, like project-based learning and problem-based learning, together with information retention techniques, like scriptwriting, spaced, and reflective learning, can already make a huge difference, helping you and your students bring distance learning to the next level.

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Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Jessica Fender
See all posts by Jessica Fender

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