How to Design Virtual Lessons That Actively Engage Students

by | Oct 5, 2020


Virtual learning is new to many of us — school leaders, teachers, parents, and students. Between technical issues, an increase in distractions at home, and the new skills required to navigate virtual learning platforms, it is easy to experience frustration and be discouraged with distance learning. However, extensive research has been conducted about implementing highly effective evidence-based instructional strategies in a traditional classroom; unfortunately, this is not the case with virtual classroom instruction. We can easily apply some research about traditional classroom instructional strategies and implement them in a virtual classroom instructional environment.  We must begin to conduct case studies to collect evidence about the instructional strategies that have a significant impact on student achievement to refine virtual classroom instruction practices. 

The Adolescent Community of Engagement (ACE) Framework: What Students Need to Succeed in Virtual Learning

A 2014 publication from the Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education outlines the Adolescent Community of Engagement (ACE) Framework, which was informed by evidence of how parents, teachers, and peers impact student engagement in learning. School leaders (such as principals and district staff) have a key role in developing a virtual learning environment that supports students.

The ACE framework highlights several factors which impact student achievement in an online environment:

  • Physiological needs — Educators have known for a long time that students need to have their basic physiological needs met (such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, and going to regular check-ups with their physician and dentist) before they can focus on schoolwork. This fact remains, regardless of where the instruction takes place.
  • Academic needs — Students need access to the school supplies that are required to complete assignments successfully. They also need instruction delivered using the gradual release of responsibility model (I do, You do, We do), differentiated instruction, and intervention supports. Each lesson plan should include measurable instructional goals that are standards-based, clear learning objectives aligned to assessments to measure whether students mastered the content taught, and a class schedule that outlines what will be taught, and when assessments will be given, and the due dates for specific assignments.
  • Monitoring and motivation Through their literature review, Borup, West, Graham, and Davies note that adolescent students often require more external motivation than adults need to keep up with their responsibilities. School leaders need to empower teachers and parents to regularly check in with students on their progress and motivate them to maintain momentum.
  • Supportive communication — Researchers also emphasize the need for robust systems of communication to support student achievement. These include teacher-parent, teacher-student, and student-student communications. School leaders can create environments that nurture all three relationship types.

How School Leaders Can Support Students’ Physiological Needs

Parents and caregivers are primarily responsible for students’ physiological needs. Especially if your school offers online-only classes right now, your leaders and teachers have a very limited ability to ensure students are well-fed, well-rested, and safe.

Consider how you can help parents support their children’s physiological needs. For example, you may want to send occasional reminders to caregivers about how environmental factors impact students’ ability to learn. Also, check out our recent article summarizing research about the ideal study environment for students at home. You can use this information as a starting place to communicate with parents.

How School Leaders Can Support StudentsAcademic Needs Through Remote Learning

In their 2001 study about online learning, Tunison and Noonan find that students experiencing their first virtual learning courses have trouble managing their own learning schedules. Although your teachers may have plenty of experience organizing in-person class materials, school leaders should provide extra professional development to help teachers learn to organize online course content, schedules, resources and activities. Teachers need to learn how they can use your school’s virtual learning platform to create manageable, bite-sized instructional segments in each lesson plan, set deadlines for each part of the instructional block, and offer individualized instruction through remote learning platforms.

You can schedule a free call with the Center for Student Achievement Solutions to discuss our customizable blended learning professional development services.

School leaders also need to provide training for students and parents to help them develop remote learning skills. Your training may need to cover:

  • How to set up a home learning schedule and designated space for virtual learning
  • How to navigate your school’s virtual learning platform
  • What to do if you run into technical issues during virtual lessons (In fact, researchers recommend hiring extra technical staff for troubleshooting, as most teachers aren’t prepared to help solve technical problems when they arise.)

How School Leaders Can Keep Students Motivated Through Virtual Learning

Students often lack the self-discipline to stay on top of their coursework without outside support. School leaders need to provide professional development to help teachers learn how to monitor student progress and keep students actively engaged and motivated in a virtual learning environment. Teachers need to know how to:

  • Analyze data from your virtual learning platform to understand student progress through each learning unit
  • Develop “learning contracts” or other accountability systems with students
  • Keep parents updated on student progress, so they know how to partner with you to support their students’ learning

For more help, check out our recent article about how to monitor student mastery of virtual learning content.

How School Leaders Can Facilitate Communication Between Teachers, Parents, and Students

Students, parents, and teachers can all feel isolated during periods of remote learning. Here are some tactics you can use to facilitate constructive conversations between teachers and parents; parents and students; and students and their peers:

  • Teach parents how they can help monitor students’ online activities to prevent procrastination, academic dishonesty, and online bullying.
  • Emphasize the importance of parental engagement with the school — When students see their parents volunteer and attend school events, they know their parents are invested in their success.
  • Encourage teachers to keep parents updated about their students’ grades and their other accomplishments so parents can reinforce good behaviors.
  • Set standards for teachers’ communication with students — For example, you may explain best practices for responding to students’ questions and messages quickly to keep students engaged.
  • Train teachers on how to use your virtual learning platform’s communication tools to vary the types of communication used with students and to facilitate peer-to-peer discussions.

Check out this recent EdSurge article about evidence-based practices for engaging communication strategies during remote learning.

Get Support for Your School’s Virtual Learning Program

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions provides customized support to address the specific challenges your school is facing related to:

  • Virtual classroom instruction and blended learning approaches to instruction
  • Student engagement and parent engagement
  • Teacher professional development
  • And more!

Schedule a free call with one of our expert consultants to tell us about your goals for your school, district, and students.