How to Use Virtual Classroom Walkthrough Tools: 7 Best Practices for K-12 School and District Leaders

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By: Michael D. Toth


COVID achievement gaps 7 best practices
Why work on core instruction now? Research-based virtual walkthrough tool
What is a virtual classroom walkthrough? Transitioning to physical tools


Why should virtual classroom walkthroughs be at the top of your priority list?

Classroom walkthroughs can be a leader’s number one tool for ensuring every one of their students is receiving high-quality instruction.

Research predicts severe student learning gaps as a result of the COVID-19 school closures, and the quality of remote instruction has varied widely and often inequitably. Consistency in the quality of distance learning instruction varies greatly from school to school and teacher to teacher.

School building reopenings are delayed for most districts and the CDC is warning of a second wave as the pandemic combines with flu season. Expert estimates of mass availability of vaccines have pushed into 2021.

It is imperative that leaders urgently focus on improving the quality of distance learning right now to prevent further learning losses. One of the most effective ways to do that is through virtual classroom walkthroughs.

According to the research, walkthroughs…

  • Reveal important – and often urgent – instructional issues
  • Give leaders insights into student learning that they otherwise would not be able to access
  • Provide leading data and visibility to schoolwide goals

It is imperative that leaders urgently focus on improving the quality of distance learning right now to prevent further learning losses.

When leaders conduct virtual classroom walkthroughs using the 7 best practices below, they can gather powerful data that will help them pinpoint areas for instructional growth, create goals and track progress, and offer actionable feedback to teachers.

Leaders can use the research-based Virtual RigorWalk tool – currently the only walkthrough tool designed specifically to assess the quality of K-12 distance learning core instruction with the technology capabilities to deliver detailed, easy-to-interpret data reports.

Below, read more about how to best use virtual classroom walkthrough tools.

Virtual classroom walkthroughs can be a leader’s number one tool for ensuring every student is receiving high-quality remote instruction.

Currently, most students are not experiencing consistent, high-quality remote instruction from teacher to teacher

Student Distant LearningStudies warn that most students didn’t receive high-quality remote instruction during the COVID-19 school closures.

McKinsey & Company estimated that only 32% of K-12 students likely received high-quality remote instruction. The numbers were even lower for black students (14%) and socioeconomically disadvantaged students (0%) (Dorn et al., 2020).

As a result, inequitable learning gaps are widening into chasms.

Black students will lose an estimated 10.3 months of learning and economically disadvantaged students will lose 12.4 months. On average, all K-12 students will lose 6.8 months (Dorn et al., 2020).

If in-person school reopenings are delayed past January 2021, the learning losses could be even greater.

But these estimates don’t need to become a reality. Leaders who find ways to improve distance learning can help their students thrive in a virtual learning environment and transition smoothly back to in-person learning.

Black students will lose an estimated 10.3 months of learning and economically disadvantaged students will lose 12.4 months. On average, all K-12 students will lose 6.8 months (Dorn et al., 2020).

Get Started with Virtual Walkthroughs Today

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Why now is the perfect time to work on Tier 1 core instruction

Leaders did not have time to prepare for how they would monitor the quality of remote instruction when schools suddenly shut down in March 2020.

Distance learning was supposed to be a temporary stopgap – leaders had to stay focused on operational management like helping teachers learn new technology and getting students online. They could not devote as much attention to instructional leadership or improving virtual Tier 1 core instruction.

It’s true that tackling academic disparities in students’ academic performance was at the top of many leaders’ post-COVID priority lists – in a RAND Corporation survey, 66.7% of principals in low-poverty schools and 78.1% in high-poverty listed it as one of their areas of higher priority for when school buildings reopened (Hamilton et al., 2020).

But many school buildings have yet to reopen. Remote and hybrid learning isn’t going away soon, and as learning gaps widen, students can’t wait any longer.

The majority of districts are reopening with remote learning only (Education Week, 2020) and the CDC warns of a possible second wave of COVID-19 in the fall (Karimi et al., 2020) which could lead to further shutdowns. For example, COVID-19 cases rose 26% for children in Florida as of mid-September, after schools began to open (Rodriguez, 2020).

Now is the time to refocus on improving core instruction – whether virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face.

Distance learning was supposed to be a temporary stopgap…But many school buildings have yet to reopen, and remote learning isn’t going away soon.

The number one area where teachers need support right now

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.

This need was ranked much higher than the need for technical support, access to high-speed internet and devices, and other areas (Hamilton et al., 2020).

The RAND survey makes it clear that teachers are struggling with virtual core instruction strategies – likely because the normal tools and routines they used for in-person student engagement didn’t translate to the remote learning environment.

Even veteran teachers know they need to develop a new skill set of strategies that increase student engagement and achievement during remote instruction.

In the unknown territory of distance and hybrid learning, it’s likely that teachers are more open to feedback and coaching than ever before. Teachers want to learn new virtual teaching strategies right now. And they want leaders to give them actionable feedback.

Leaders have the opportunity to take advantage of teachers’ growth mindset and help form stronger virtual Tier 1 core instruction skills schoolwide. When it’s done right, these skills will carry over to in-person learning, leading to acceleration of learning for all students when schools reopen.

The RAND survey makes it clear that teachers are struggling with virtual core instruction strategies…and it’s likely that teachers are more open to feedback and coaching than ever before.

It’s not too late

Even if instruction is already underway, it’s still the right time for leaders to invest in improving distance learning. It’s never too late to work on Tier 1 core instruction.

The research makes it clear that children can’t afford to wait through another year of low-quality or mixed-quality remote instruction. Leaders have to decide how they will extend their impact past operational management of remote learning and to true instructional leadership.

Any time invested in ways to improve distance learning and virtual Tier 1 core instruction will translate to improved in-person core instruction – as long as the right structures are in place.

One of a leader’s most powerful instructional tools can be used during remote learning: the virtual classroom walkthrough.

Leaders have to decide how they will extend their impact past operational management of remote learning and to true instructional leadership.

Get Started with Virtual Walkthroughs Today

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What is a virtual classroom walkthrough?

A virtual classroom walkthrough is similar to an in-person walkthrough. A school or district leader virtually visits distance learning environments to check the quality of virtual instruction using research-based indicators.

Virtual classroom walkthrough protocols require more planning than their physical counterparts. Leaders will need to access the virtual instruction, typically turning off their video and muting their microphone to cause minimal disruption.

A well-planned virtual walkthrough involves specific protocols and routines including a set list of indicators and “look fors.” What are remote learning “look fors”? See the 7 best practices section for more details.

Virtual classroom walkthroughs are meant to support teacher growth with actionable and specific feedback for quality assurance purposes.

Walkthroughs capture baseline data helping leaders track trends across the entire school or across multiple schools but are not used for evaluating individual teachers. It is important to keep teacher evaluation and growth and development walks as separate processes.

Virtual walkthroughs give leaders a complete picture so they can focus on the highest priority growth areas for their school or district. Walkthroughs provide the right data to inform professional development decisions and work for coaches and teacher professional learning communities (PLCs).

Virtual classroom walkthrough protocols require more planning than their physical counterparts.


7 best practices for using virtual classroom walkthrough tools

1.   Decide on a walkthrough tool that meets your needs

First, think through what you need in a walkthrough tool to keep from wasting time trying out too many tools.

Which of these features is important to you?

  • Reports that identify trends across classrooms over time:
    Useful for tracking progress monitoring during remote learning in high-priority growth areas
  • Research-validated indicators:
    Critical for prioritizing the highest leverage aspects of student learning (more details below)
  • Clear and actionable data:
    Important for differentiating the underlying root cause issues vs. the surface symptoms
  • Works in virtual, in-person, and hybrid classrooms:
    Ensures any time you invest in learning the tool isn’t lost
  • User-friendly:
    Saves time and energy and prevents frustration. Visual, easy-to-interpret data is important.

Should I just create my own tool?

There is a considerable effort involved in analyzing research to build an effective tool. Coburn, Honig, and Stein (2009) studied classroom walkthroughs and reported that districts often struggled to access and obtain research and data and that collaborating with external organizations and researchers was an effective solution.


2.   Use research-validated indicators

One of the most important aspects of a walkthrough tool is the quality of its indicators. If the indicators aren’t research-validated, the tool won’t tell leaders anything they need to know.

What are the hallmarks of high-quality indicators?

  • Research-validated: Ensures the indicators are actually linked to the quality of students learning
  • Observable: Must be able to see and hear evidence – these are the “look fors”
  • Measurable: Can be objectively assessed on a clear rubric
  • Focused on student evidence vs. teacher actions: Keeps the focus on what the students are actually absorbing vs. what the teacher is trying to teach
  • Consistent: Ensures that if different people walked the same classroom, they should be able to record information about it in the same way

What aspects of instruction should the indicators measure?
Learning Sciences International’s Applied Research Center identified the most critical components of virtual Tier 1 core instruction.

They are:

  • Virtual conditions for learning
  • Standards-based student evidence
  • Active student learning
  • Equitable learning practices
  • Practical and purposeful technology integration
  • Teacher formative assessment and interventions
  • Actionable student feedback

Attending to these aspects of instruction will accelerate learning and ultimately close gaps and increase equity for all students.

Note: Teachers may need professional development support to master new skills for virtual instruction that incorporates all these components.


3.   Establish a common language, vision, and understanding of the indicators

After you select a walkthrough tool with indicators that will lead to results, be intentional about calibrating with your staff on why and how you will be using the tool.

This includes:

  • Sharing a clear vision for high-quality teaching and learning defined by the indicators
  • Practicing using the tool with anyone who will do remote learning walkthroughs
  • Doing walkthroughs together and comparing data to make sure scoring is consistent and aligned
  • Ensuring actionable feedback is provided with each classroom visit


4.   Establish your baseline and plan out your sample size and frequency

When you first start using the tool, it’s important to establish a baseline by doing your first walkthroughs. Remember:

  • A baseline is just a starting point of data – there is no “wrong” place to start.
  • Frequent small samples are most useful in a remote learning environment for proactive, real-time data
  • Consistency is key – stick to a set of protocols (see below) to ensure you are collecting accurate data that will generate actionable reports


5.   Maintain consistent virtual walkthrough protocols and routines

When planning out walks, leaders need to decide:

  • Who should participate? For example, will you include instructional coaches and teacher leaders, or only school or district leaders?
  • Which classrooms should you visit? Random inspection is difficult in a remote learning environment – you will need to know which teachers are doing live remote instruction at what times. You may need them to grant permission on platforms such as Zoom. Ensure visitation of both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.
  • How long should a remote learning walkthrough be? Best practice is to keep observations brief – 7-10 minutes.
  • What are the protocols for entering/exiting remote classrooms? Such as, keeping your camera off in breakout rooms and asking teachers to tell their students to continue working as they normally do.
  • How do you give feedback to teachers? Individual teachers do not need to be identified when recording walkthrough data. Remember, this isn’t evaluative – you are scoring the teaching, not the teacher. Share overall feedback and trends with grade-level PLCs and empower them to take action.
  • How do you communicate results to staff? Celebrate incremental wins and keep everyone focused on areas for growth. Communicate honestly about trend data.

This upfront planning will save you time later and will improve your results.


6.   Analyze reports to understand root cause issues and trends

Using a tool with a reporting feature allows you to pinpoint root cause issues and engage in progress monitoring during remote learning.

Why is this so important?

The benefits to school leaders:

  • Focus on the right areas – the root causes not surface symptoms
  • Use real-time data to quickly adjust your instructional focus
  • Ensure you are on track to accomplish your goals


The benefits to district leaders:

  • Visibility on instruction across schools
  • Accountability and support to schools struggling to deliver high-quality remote instruction


7.   Use an action board to create improvement goals and track progress

What is an action board?

Action boards are a project management tool taken from the “agile” business philosophy. Action boards break down goals into tasks and track whether those tasks are getting done.

Tasks can only move to “done” when there is evidence that they were completed to the established standard.

Action boards help with:

  • School improvement planning for virtual, remote, or hybrid learning
  • Planning ways to improve distance learning now
  • Creating small wins that generate momentum
  • Continual, gradual growth in schools
  • Self- and peer-accountability
  • Clear goals and tasks to empower self-direction


Get Started with Virtual Walkthroughs Today

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All 7 best practices – in one tool

Virtual RigorWalk is a research-based progress monitoring data tool designed for virtual classroom walkthroughs. It is based on the extensive research base of the Rigor Diagnostic developed by Learning Sciences International (LSI)’s Applied Research Center (Basileo & Lyons, 2019), which is correlated to state assessment scores.

Virtual RigorWalk is currently the only walkthrough designed specifically to assess the quality of K-12 distance learning core instruction with the technology capabilities to deliver detailed, easy-to-interpret data reports.

Virtual RigorWalk is currently the only walkthrough designed specifically to assess the quality of K-12 distance learning core instruction with the technology capabilities to deliver detailed, easy-to-interpret data reports.


How does Virtual RigorWalk close gaps, accelerate learning, and increase equity?

Virtual RIgorWalk

  • Research-based best practices: Incorporates all aspects from the 7 best practices for remote learning walkthroughs.
  • Easy-to-use digital tool: Designed to be quick and useful with minimal time to learn the tool. It uses a cloud-based digital platform which can be accessed on a laptop, tablet, or phone.
  • Powerful reports: Data reports are visual and easy to interpret. The reports are a critical tool for progress monitoring core instruction over time.
  • Content-agnostic: The tool can be used in any grade level K-12, in any subject area, and with any curriculum.
  • Focused on schoolwide growth: No teacher names are collected – the tool is focused on helping you identify trends across classrooms and opportunities for schoolwide growth.
  • Aligned resources for teacher professional development: Use the tool diagnostically to identify which areas to focus on – and offer aligned resources for teachers to improve their virtual teaching skills.
  • Comprehensive training: Virtual RigorWalk includes training on how to use the tool – including a practice session in your own classrooms, with your own data.
  • Guide to virtual walkthrough protocols and routines: Protocols and routines for walkthroughs are different in a remote learning environment vs. in-person. The Virtual RigorWalk training guides you through virtual best practices and offers a participant notebook so you’ll have all the virtual protocols in one place.
  • Personalized leadership coaching: Virtual RigorWalk packages can include personalized school leadership coaching on action boards, root cause analysis, and other best practices – or district leadership coaching on how to support schools.
  • Translates to in-person instruction: The techniques and strategies easily translate to both in-person and blended learning classroom settings. The in-person tool uses the same technology and platform as the virtual walkthrough tool.

You want all of your students to experience consistent, high-quality instruction that leads to equitable student outcomes – virtual classroom walkthroughs with Virtual RigorWalk can help make that vision a reality, even during a pandemic.


Tips for transitioning between a virtual and physical classroom walkthrough tool

During this tumultuous time, many leaders are being asked to move between virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning environments – and often rapidly.

But leaders can ensure instructional quality remains consistent by continuing to use a classroom walkthrough tool and by making adaptations to walkthrough procedures as needed.

LSI offers the physical version of its core instruction walkthrough tool, RigorWalk®, to help make that transition as easy as possible.

Here are some additional tips for making the move between virtual and in-person classroom walkthroughs as smooth as possible:

  1. Communicate to staff that classroom walkthroughs remain a priority, no matter the learning setting. Share the vision again to keep everyone aligned.
  2. Review and adapt the indicators and “look fors,” as described in the above 7 best practices (#2). For example, if your instructional vision is for students to collaborate with their peers on rigorous tasks, that vision should remain the same – but student collaboration will look different in a virtual vs. physical environment.
  3. Review and adapt the protocols and routines from best practice #5. Again, the essence remains the same, but you may need different procedures for visiting a virtual vs. in-person classroom.
  4. Discuss and practice new changes with your leadership team. Take time to practice using the physical tool and do classroom walks together to ensure everyone is calibrated and comfortable with any new indicators, protocols, and routines. Remain consistent with your sample size and frequency.
  5. Analyze your reports carefully. As learning environments shift, it is possible that new instructional issues will emerge. Being proactive can help you get to the root cause quickly.
  6. Continue to use your action board consistently so your goals stay on track. Adapt goals as needed and ensure they stay aligned to the instructional vision.

Since RigorWalk uses the same technology and platform as its virtual counterpart, leaders will be able to easily transition from one tool to another. RigorWalk was built on the same extensive research base as Virtual RigorWalk and also correlates to state assessment scores. For those who are leading hybrid instruction, both tools can be used at once.

When done right – using the 7 best practices – walkthrough tools can be equally effective in virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning settings.

Get Started with Virtual Walkthroughs Today

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Basileo, L. D., and Lyons, M. E. (2019). The research base supporting the Rigor Diagnostic observation instrument. Learning Sciences International, West Palm Beach.

Coburn, C. E., Honig, M. I., & Stein, M. K. (2009). What’s the evidence on districts’ use of evidence? In J. D. Bransford, D. J. Stipek, N. J. Vye, L. M. Gomez, & D. Lam (Eds.), The Role of Research in Educational Improvement (pp. 67-86). Harvard Education Press.

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., and Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

Education Week. (2020, July 15) School districts’ reopening plans: a snapshot.

Hamilton, L. S., Kaufman, J. H., and Diliberti, M. (2020). Teaching and Leading Through a Pandemic: Key Findings from the American Educator Panels Spring 2020 COVID-19 Surveys. RAND Corporation.

Karimi, F., Almasy, S., and Andone, D. (2020, August 14). Rushing reopening could have devastating consequences, Dr. Fauci says. CNN.

Rodriguez, E. (2020, September 15). Florida’s largest teachers union pressing Gov. Ron DeSantis to release schools COVID data. CBS Miami.

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