Make an Online Course, Not an Obstacle Course: Lessons in Teacher Clarity from Rockstar Teachers

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Last spring, educators received some feedback from parents: navigating distance learning was too complicated. Way too complicated. So complicated that many parents declared their families “done with distance learning” months before the school year ended.

Now it’s July, and the national argument raging over whether to open public schools (which is actually silly – school is opening no matter what; the question is whether schools will provide face-to-face, hybrid, or distance instruction) is drowning out any productive conversations we might be having. Like, for example, how to respond to the aforementioned feedback.

Next fall, when my 6th through 12th grade students come to school (and yes, logging in to an online class is still going to school), I want them to know exactly what to do. I want them to be able to come to school without having to stop and ask a parent, sibling, or tutor for directions. I want them to show up, eager to be back with their peers and to know more stuff about stuff.

My 2019 dissertation explored how State Teachers of the Year and State Teacher of the Year finalists designed clear learning environments. Although I’d love to see more research on teacher clarity in distance learning, I think their wisdom will still guide me as I prepare for that beautiful moment when my students come bounding into my (probably online) classroom this fall.

Clear teaching is straightforward, efficient, coherent, structured, and interactive. (If you want to see the research on this, check out my dissertation). Here I’m going to discuss straightforward, structured, and interactive instruction, because I think these traits are most relevant to online instruction.

What does a straightforward classroom look like? It’s well planned and consistent. Daily plans are communicated through a visual anchor. In a classroom, think of the daily agenda on the board. Online, it’s best practice to place a lesson overview at the top of each lesson folder. Those lesson folders should follow a consistent format, and there should be a tool facilitating teacher-student and student-student interactions.

What does a structured classroom look like? It’s got a wealth of scaffolding tools like graphic organizers, rubrics, checklists, and exemplars. Workflows have structured beginnings and a consistent structure. Online, teachers can organize all lessons to follow a similar routine and embed scaffolding tools within elements of the routine.

What does an interactive classroom look like? Formative feedback loops allow teachers to check for comprehension – for the whole class all at once as well as for individuals and small groups. Teachers facilitate student interactions – with their peers, their communities, themselves, and most of all content. By selecting engaging resources, provoking student inquiry, and prompting student analysis and reflection – often through discussion, cooperative group work, and active learning – teachers broker meaningful interactions between students and content.

This is the heart and soul of the classroom: grappling, evaluating, synthesizing, and creating with content – that’s where student attention needs to go. This is why taking the time to make the format of an online class as simple and consistent is so essential. Clarity is foundational and frees students’ cognition to endure meaningful struggle. Struggle and confusion about content are part of cognitive growth. Struggle and confusion about course navigation are alienating. Not knowing what to do in a class separates students from opportunities to learn and undermines their confidence.

Here’s a peek at how I organized my 7th grade Life Science class in Schoology last May (after a couple of months of trial and error).
Each weekly folder starts with a discussion where students can ask questions and get help. The discussions are open to all students, so guess what? They tended to answer each other’s questions faster than I could. Each daily lesson has an introduction, assignment, and formative assessment. That’s it. Of course, a teacher can make the actual content inside the assignment just as complex as she would like – that’s the beauty of clear and organized instruction. Once you tidy up your course, you can bring the content complexity.

Check out this article about methods for tidying up courses in learning management systems.

The research – including my dissertation – shows that clarity is a universal good teaching practice that benefits all learners. Everybody. All races, all cultures, all nations. Clear and organized teaching opens the door to your classroom and shines a light on pathways to success. There are barriers in education that will take years to dismantle together as a collective society. But course design is 100% within teacher control. And we can start thinking now about how to make our online classrooms so easy to navigate that our students can run in and start learning immediately, independently, and joyfully. I can’t wait to say, “Welcome back to school. I’ve been waiting all summer to meet you, and I am so excited to start this school year together.”


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