Effective virtual instruction using the 4Rs: Strategies to improve RELATIONSHIPS, classroom ROUTINES and procedures, student ROLES, and academic RIGOR

By: Jaime Bailey, Karen DotyJoan Pinkerton, Rebeccah Potavin, Lorie Spadafora, and Diane Stultz

 

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What are the 4Rs? Relationships
Routines Roles
Rigor 4 tips for using the 4Rs
Virtual workshop on the 4Rs

 

Below, read about the 4Rs of effective virtual instruction – Relationships, Routines, Roles, and Rigor – and how they can improve the quality of distance learning for all students. Learn:

    • Why we need the 4Rs during and following the COVID-19 crisis
    • What the research says about the 4Rs
    • How the 4Rs look different in a remote learning environment compared to in-person instruction
    • Examples of strategies for using the 4Rs
    • Tips to keep in mind when adopting the 4Rs in your classroom, school, or district
    • How teachers and school and district leaders can engage in virtual development opportunities around the 4Rs

 

How effective was virtual instruction during COVID-19?

When COVID-19 suddenly shut down schools across the country in March 2020, educators made heroic efforts to get their students online and to keep them learning despite the crisis.

But as virtual learning continues in the 2020-21 school year, will heroic efforts be enough when it comes to providing students with truly effective virtual instruction?

The quality of virtual instruction varied widely and often inequitably

McKinsey & Company estimated that only 14% of black students and even fewer socioeconomically disadvantaged students likely received high-quality remote instruction during the pandemic. The estimated overall average of all K-12 students who received high-quality remote instruction was a mere 32% (Dorn et al., 2020).

Most students agree that remote learning has been difficult for them – in a recent survey, 59% of students said online learning is worse or much worse compared to in-person instruction, according to a survey of 890 teens taken between August 20-27 (Wronski, 2020).

Figure 1. Results from student survey by SurveyMonkey with Common Sense Media, based on responses from 890 teens taken between August 20-27, 2020. 40% of students said online learning is worse than in-person instruction and 19% said it is much worse, for 59% total (Wronski, 2020).

The estimated overall average of all K-12 students who received high-quality remote instruction was a mere 32% (Dorn et al., 2020).

 

 

The risk of waiting for schools to reopen in person

Many teachers haven’t had access to training to build the new skills and competencies needed to provide high-quality virtual core instruction for students. Some districts may hope distance learning will simply be a stopgap until in-person instruction can continue.

However, of 907 districts tracked by Education Week, 49% of districts are using remote learning only and 27% are using hybrid or partial as of September 21, 2020 (when the Education Week tracking project concluded).

This equates to 76% of districts engaged in remote or hybrid instruction, with only 24% offering full in-person instruction to all students (Education Week, 2020). The CDC warns of a possible second wave of COVID-19 this fall (Karimi et al., 2020) which could lead to extended school shutdowns.

Figure 2. Of 907 districts tracked by Education Week, 49% of districts are using remote learning only and 27% are using hybrid or partial as of September 21, 2020. This equates to 76% of districts engaged in remote or hybrid instruction, with only 24% offering full in-person instruction to all students (Education Week, 2020).

Distance learning could continue for several more months in many districts…virtual instruction must improve dramatically – now.

In other words: it’s likely that distance learning could continue for several more months in many districts. And every day that students receive virtual instruction that is less than high-quality means learning gaps can widen into possibly insurmountable chasms by the time students do return to in-person school.

Continuing distance learning as it is and hoping that students will experience an achievement boost once schools reopen in person is not an option. Virtual instruction must improve dramatically – now.

4R’s Virtual Workshop

Establishing Relationships, Routines, Roles, and Rigor During Distance Learning

 

Learn More

 

What are the 4Rs of effective virtual instruction?

The 4Rs of effective virtual instruction originated from real concerns from schools and districts as they prepared to continue virtual instruction in fall 2020. Overwhelmingly, the concerns centered on the following principles:

    • Establishing or re-establishing connections with students
    • Integrating social emotional learning in a remote environment
    • Deeper learning and more complex student tasks
    • Avoiding work packets and long teacher lectures
    • Making virtual learning environments more efficient and less frustrating
    • Increasing proficiency with new technology tools

Based on these concerns, expert educational consultants at Learning Sciences International (LSI) created the 4Rs of effective virtual instruction. They are:

    1. Building relationships with students
    2. Developing classrooms routines and procedures
    3. Establish student roles
    4. Increasing academic rigor

 

The 4Rs of Effective Virtual Instruction
Relationships
Building positive relationships with and among students in a remote environment
Routines
Developing virtual routines for students to access tech tools and resources
Roles
Establishing student roles for working in virtual groups with self-management and student agency
Rigor
Creating rigorous, standards-aligned tasks with a focus on deeper learning at higher taxonomy levels

Figure 2. The 4Rs of effective virtual instruction: Relationships, Roles, Routines, and Rigor.

 

1. Building RELATIONSHIPS with students

How are relationships different in a virtual learning environment?

During in-person schooling, students and teachers had many opportunities for everyday social interactions in the classroom, cafeteria, and on the playground where they could naturally build bonds.

Many teachers are wondering how to connect with students and keep them engaged and coming back to virtual classes.

In a remote environment, teachers must have a new set of skills and strategies to intentionally connect with their students and foster bonds between students.

Teachers may actually be able to form deeper and more meaningful relationships in a virtual environment if they deliberately focus on relationship-building strategies.

Why are relationships important in a virtual learning environment?
    • Social connections and focus on learning: With continued school shutdowns, social isolation, and uncertainty, students and teachers need positive relationships and connections right now. Many have experienced trauma and stress due to COVID-19 which brain research says may lead to difficulties with engaging in learning. A global survey reported that 83% of children and 89% of parents/caregivers experienced an increase in negative feelings due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Ritz et al., 2020). Social connections can lower stress and increase the brain’s focus on learning.
    • Student engagement: Research says when student-teacher relationships improve, so does student engagement. Findings from a longitudinal study of high schoolers concluded that students’ engagement was higher and became increasingly more so as the number of positive teacher-student relationships outnumbered the negative (Martin & Collie, 2019).
    • Teacher wellbeing: Strong classroom relationships are also beneficial for teachers. A study of 132 teachers found that the strongest predictor for teachers’ joy was positive interpersonal relationships with students. When student-teacher relationships were negative, it was the strongest predictor of teachers’ anxiety (Hagenauer et al., 2015).

 

What is an example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for relationships?

An example of an effective instructional strategy to build relationships is letting students connect with one another in small groups with a quick engager before starting an academic task.

Engager ideas include:

    • Have students share their interests with the class and learn about common interests with their classmates
    • Start with a brief community-building activity, such as trying to count to 20 without interrupting each other
    • Try to solve a quick and fun riddle together
    • Use interest polls to find out about your students

 

2. Developing classroom ROUTINES and procedures

How are classroom routines and procedures different in a virtual learning environment?

Classroom management looks different in a virtual learning environment. New classroom routines and procedures are necessary to introduce tech tools, give students access to the resources they need to learn, and ensure students can concentrate their efforts on learning.

Even if students were using digital tools during in-person instruction, they will need to be able to use the tools by themselves in a distance learning format.

Consistent, predictable routines and procedures during virtual learning can also bring calmness to the stressful situations that students may be experiencing at home and increase the brain’s focus on learning.

 

Why are classroom routines and procedures important in a virtual learning environment?
    • Prevent frustration and disengagement: Many teachers, students, and parents experienced frustration with unfamiliar tech tools during the pandemic. Some parents even had to withdraw their children from virtual learning due to not being able to support student learning while working full-time (Flaccus & Gecker, 2020). Teachers can minimize frustration by developing online work routines and procedures for students to use tech tools and access resources with less parental supervision needed.
    • Strengthen executive function skills: The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University noted that one of the ways adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills is by establishing routines. Opportunities to practice executive function skills can be particularly important for students facing adversity (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2017).
    • Maximize instructional time: When teachers establish a structured set of virtual routines and procedures, it means less time is wasted. One study of 131 in-person lessons found that it took about six minutes on average for a lesson to start. That may seem minor, but the total loss of instructional time added up to about five weeks over the course of the school year. The study pointed to inadequate routines as one of the main causes of the lost time (Saloviita, 2013).

 

What is an example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for classroom routines and procedures?

An example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for classroom routines and procedures is creating and practicing norms for video meetings. Teachers might consider starting out with a non-academic lesson while students are initially learning the new platform.

The teacher can create a checklist to make sure students understand the expectations, rules, and technical steps for doing things such as:

      • Keeping their video turned on
      • Muting their audio unless speaking
      • Using a dedicated home learning space away from distractions
      • Coming to virtual class prepared with materials and resources at hand
      • Using the chat box
      • Participation in breakout rooms
      • Requesting assistance from peers or the teacher

Once students learn the routines for the new tech tool, academic lessons can start without delay and less time can be spent on troubleshooting, reminders, and repeating instructions.

 

3. Establishing student ROLES 

How are student roles different in a virtual learning environment?

Teachers must be intentional about creating student roles that empower students with agency over their own learning.

Student agency is especially important in a virtual environment where students have to take on more responsibilities than they may have been accustomed to during in-person instruction. In a global survey, 37% of children reported that they had no one to help them, which was an obstacle to their online learning during the pandemic (Edwards, 2020).

Student roles encourage students to function more autonomously. For example, students might need to manage their own time (with little parental/guardian supervision) during asynchronous assignments. When students have clear expectations and know their peers are counting on them to come prepared and able to fulfill their role during synchronous instruction, students are more likely to be motivated and engaged.

Why are student roles important in a virtual learning environment?
    • Meaningful collaborative work with accountability: Students should be able to engage with their peers during virtual instruction – but they can’t simply be grouped into breakout rooms without clear roles and expectations. Clear roles ensure self- and peer-accountability so one student isn’t doing all the work. Classroom observations of student Academic Teaming show that students fulfill their responsibilities and become committed to their teams as they form social bonds and engage in meaningful collaborative work (Toth & Sousa, 2019).
    • Autonomy and self-regulation: When students have structured roles, they can be more autonomous in their learning. Studies have shown that teacher support of student cognitive autonomy is positively correlated to reading achievement (Marshik et al., 2017) and students’ ability to self-regulate is positively correlated to academic achievement (Hinnant-Crawford et al., 2018).
    • Social-emotional skills: As students take on the responsibilities of different roles and learn social norms, they get real practice in developing skills such as self-management, self-awareness, and self-efficacy (Toth & Sousa, 2019). These life skills will serve students well beyond virtual instruction.

 

What is an example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for student roles?

An example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for student roles is following this basic process:

    1. Establish student roles before the task
    2. Clarify the roles within each task
    3. Monitor roles within the breakout rooms

An example of one student role is the Facilitator, whose responsibilities might be to:

    • Get the conversation started
    • Ask all teammates to share their ideas and questions

 

4. Increasing academic RIGOR

How is academic rigor different in a virtual learning environment?

Rigorous, standards-aligned tasks are a vital part of any type of instruction, but in virtual instruction they are even more important.

Teacher-centered lessons do not translate well to distance learning. Even teachers with a dynamic lecture style and rapport in-person will find students less able to concentrate for long periods of virtual lectures.

Virtual academic tasks must be engaging and challenging enough for students to want to invest their effort and achieve their learning targets. Creating complex tasks that are rich and relevant to students’ lives is essential for effective virtual instruction.

 

Why is increasing academic rigor important in a virtual learning environment?
    •  Catch students up and accelerate learning: Research indicates that students’ tasks often do not match the taxonomic levels of the standards and are frequently designed at levels of lesser cognitive complexity (Anees, 2017). In order to close COVID learning gaps, it is critically important that virtual learning tasks address the full intent and rigor of the standards at students’ grade level and at the correct taxonomic levels.
    • Engage students’ brains: PET scans show that brain activity is higher when a person is explaining a concept rather than just listening to information about a concept. When students debate big ideas with their peers during complex academic tasks, their brains are working harder and they can experience greater development of cognitive networks (Toth & Sousa, 2019).
    • Facilitate resiliency and growth mindset: Students have the opportunity to experience productive struggle during rigorous academic tasks. Studies have shown that students who engage in productive struggle outperform those who do not – even when they initially experienced failure (Kapur, 2008). Students can become more resilient and develop a growth mindset as they persist through complex virtual tasks.

 

What is an example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for increasing academic rigor?

An example of an effective virtual instructional strategy for increasing academic rigor is designing tasks that are more complex rather than simply being more difficult.

An example of a social studies task that is difficult vs. one that is complex:

Difficult Task VS. Complex Task
Name the states and their capitals in the order they were admitted to the Union. What factors do you think a city needs in order to be named a capital?

 

The difficult task requires memorization and recall at the retrieval level of the taxonomy. The complex task is more open-ended, inviting debate and deeper thinking and reasoning as students engage at the analysis and knowledge utilization levels of the taxonomy.

Complex tasks can be adapted to any learning setting. The time that teachers invest in developing high-quality, complex student tasks will not be wasted when schools go back to fully in-person learning.

4R’s Virtual Workshop

Establishing Relationships, Routines, Roles, and Rigor During Distance Learning

 

Learn More

 

 

4 tips for leading your classroom, school, or district with the 4Rs

 

Tip #1: Practice using the 4Rs with colleagues

Experiencing the 4Rs strategies makes using them much less overwhelming and more effective. Take the time to collaborate with your Professional Learning Community (PLC).

PLCs might do the following:

    • Practice using new tech platforms
    • Identify new routines
    • Practice how to monitor learning in breakout rooms
    • Plan lessons with rigorous virtual tasks

 

Tip #2: Have patience with the process

Recognize that you have to keep using the 4Rs strategies in order to become more comfortable and proficient with them.

Keep in mind three important things:

    1. Establishing foundations is important – start slow to go fast
    2. Be okay with productive struggle
    3. Give yourself permission to make mistakes

 

Tip #3: Remember it is never too late

It’s never too late to invest your time and energy into improving virtual instruction. Even with the 2020-21 school year underway and the uncertainty of when schools will re-open for in-person instruction, students can benefit from the 4Rs right now.

Research estimates say students are six months to one year behind due to the COVID-related school closures last spring (Pensiero et al., 2020).

Whether you are online for the next few weeks or several more months, if the 4Rs can help your students accelerate their learning and engage more deeply with virtual instruction, potentially preventing further gaps – won’t it be worthwhile?

 

Tip #4: Provide professional learning opportunities

In a RAND Corporation survey taken during the COVID school shutdowns, teachers indicated the number one area in which they needed support from their school or district was for “strategies to keep students engaged and motivated to learn remotely,” with 44.6% of teachers calling it a major or very major need (Hamilton et al., 2020, p. 9).

Perhaps the most proactive strategy for using the 4Rs is providing teachers with a structured approach to experience the 4Rs, practice techniques with colleagues, and plan ways to use the 4Rs in virtual classrooms with students.

Consider the 4Rs professional development full-day workshop, as described below.

4R’s Virtual Workshop

Establishing Relationships, Routines, Roles, and Rigor During Distance Learning

 

Learn More

 

 

Virtual workshop on the 4Rs

 

What is the 4Rs workshop?

The 4Rs professional development virtual workshop was developed by experts at Learning Sciences International (LSI).

The full-day workshop includes a 4-hour deep-dive session on each of the Rs followed by two hours of coaching with guided time to create lesson plans and receive feedback.

The techniques taught in the training can be applied to any grade level or subject area, with any content, and within various tech platforms and different digital tools.

Additionally, LSI developed a three-day professional development experience called the Virtual Core Instruction Power Pack which includes a full day of the 4Rs, as well as a day on creating tasks for student breakout rooms and a day on monitoring for learning in a virtual world.

 

Who is the 4Rs workshop for?

Both teachers and school and district leaders can participate in the 4Rs workshop. Many districts have found it valuable for leaders to participate in order to create a common language and better understand how to support teachers and monitor implementation.

 

Why is the 4Rs workshop effective?
    • Research-based strategies: Each of the 4Rs is grounded in research, as described above. Facilitators translate the research into actionable, concrete strategies.
    • Active learning: The workshop is not a “sit and get” experience. Activities are designed around the 4Rs so that participants will experience what their students will experience.
    • Addresses real districts’ concerns: As described above, the 4Rs originated from real field feedback from districts as they prepared to continue virtual instruction in fall 2020.
    • Expert facilitators: Workshops are led by LSI’s expert K-12 practitioners. Many facilitators were former school and district leaders and understand the challenges educators are facing.
    • Immediately actionable: Participants can use the strategies they learn in the workshop starting the next day.

Whether you’re online for the next few weeks or several more months, if the 4Rs can help your students accelerate their learning and engage more deeply with virtual instruction, potentially preventing further gaps – won’t it be worthwhile?

 

4R’s Virtual Workshop

Establishing Relationships, Routines, Roles, and Rigor During Distance Learning

 

Learn More

 

 

Resources

Author bio

Jaime Bailey, Karen DotyJoan Pinkerton, Rebeccah Potavin, Lorie Spadafora, and Diane Stultz

Our collective passion for effective teaching and learning led us to design and refine the 4Rs in response to COVID and what we were seeing in our schools and hearing from teachers and leaders across the country. Our average number of years in education is 40. We have been teachers, principals, coaches, district supervisors, school improvement specialists, curriculum coordinators and assessment specialists.

 

References

Anees, S. (2017). Analysis of assessment levels of students’ learning according to cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED586762.pdf

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2017). Three principles to improve outcomes for children and families. https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/HCDC_3PrinciplesPolicyPractice.pdf

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime

Education Week. (2020, July 15). School districts’ reopening plans: A snapshot. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/school-districts-reopening-plans-a-snapshot.html

Edwards, J. (2020). Protect a generation: The impact of COVID-19 on children’s lives. Save the Children International. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/library/protect-generation-impact-covid-19-childrens-lives

Flaccus, G. & Gecker, J. (25 April, 2020). “I just can’t do this.” Harried parents frustrated with distance learning. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/a3e86445d1387ecd8d1df8f9f7743e1f

Hamilton, L. S., Kaufman, J. H., & Diliberti, M. (2020). Teaching and leading through a pandemic: Key findings from the American educator panels spring 2020 COVID-19 surveys. RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/RRA168-2

Hagenauer, G., Hascher, T., & Volet, S.E. (2015). Teacher emotions in the classroom: associations with students’ engagement, classroom discipline and the interpersonal teacher-student relationship. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 30, 385–403. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-015-0250-0

Hinnant-Crawford, B., Faison, M. and Chang, M. (2018). Culture as mediator. Co-regulation, self-regulation, and middle school mathematics achievement. Journal for Multicultural Education, 10(3), 274-293. https://doi.org/10.1108/JME-05-2016-0032

Kapur, M. (2008). Productive failure. Cognition and Instruction, 26(3), 379–424. https://doi.org/10.1080/07370000802212669

Karimi, F., Almasy, S., and Andone, D. (2020, August 14). Rushing reopening could have devastating consequences, Dr. Fauci says. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/13/health/us-coronavirus-thursday/index.html

Marshik, T., Ashton, P. T., & Algina, J. (2017). Teachers’ and students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness as predictors of students’ achievement. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 20(1), 39-67. DOI 10.1007/s11218-016-9360-z

Martin, A. J., & Collie, R. J. (2019). Teacher–student relationships and students’ engagement in high school: Does the number of negative and positive relationships with teachers matter? Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(5), 861–876. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000317

Pensiero, N., Kelly, A., & Bokhove, C. (2020, July 23). Closure of schools during the COVID-19 lockdown could increase inequalities in primary and secondary education. University of Southampton. https://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2020/07/lockdown-education-impact.page

Ritz, D., O’Hare, G., & Burgess, M. (2020). The hidden impact of COVID-19 on child protection and wellbeing. Save the Children International. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/18174/pdf/the_hidden_impact_of_covid-19_on_child_protection_and_wellbeing.pdf

Saloviita, T. (2013). Classroom management and loss of time at the lesson start: A preliminary study. European Journal of Educational Research, 2(4), 167-170. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1086382.pdf

Toth, M.D., & Sousa, D.A. (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom through academic teaming. Learning Sciences International.

Wronski, L. (2020). Common Sense Media|SurveyMonkey poll: COVID and the return to school. https://www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/common-sense-media-school-reopening/

 

About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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