Enhancing online learning

By Ashley Abramson, APA

The COVID-19 pandemic has moved education online for most students. Psychologists are offering ways to maximize that shift

Many instructors were on spring break when they learned their schools were closing to stop the spread of the coronavirus—and they had less than a week to move all their course content online. Remote learning during a pandemic isn’t your typical online-learning scenario. In a more traditional, planned online course, students and instructors agree on the online learning environment and make necessary arrangements for it to work. “Now, we have millions of students who have never taken an online class and suddenly they have to learn with computers,” says psychologist Regan A.R. Gurung, PhD, interim executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and director of the general psychology program at Oregon State University. “It’s a totally different world.”

For many students, the resources that would normally be available for online learning—reliable Wi-Fi, access to a computer and even a basic understanding of digital platforms—are not always readily available for emergency remote learning.

“It’s the difference between hosting a dinner party you’ve planned for months versus having 20 people over with almost no notice,” says Viji Sathy, PhD, a teaching professor of psychology and neuroscience and administrator in the Office of Undergraduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As instructors and school officials balance moving traditional courses online with planning potential distance learning courses for the fall and summer, they are gleaning principles from educational psychology to create a positive experience for students. Among those are:

Make lessons engaging and positive. Richard E. Mayer, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that personalization is important when students and instructors are separated by screens. He encourages teachers to use first-person language in online lectures, along with friendly gestures, facial expressions and eye contact.

The instructor’s emotional tone also plays a significant part in helping students learn online. In one study, Mayer and his colleagues hired an actor to deliver the same lecture twice, once with positive affect and once with negative affect. Students learned better from the lecture when the actor appeared happy and content, so Mayer says it’s important to exhibit positivity whenever possible.

Be flexible and build connections. Sathy says since remote emergency instruction often brings inequity issues to the surface, such as lack of reliable internet access, it’s important for instructors to be flexible with students. Practically, this may mean being more accommodating about when and how students submit assignments.

“Unfortunately, some students might experience difficulty maintaining their academic standing: They may get sick, a family member may get sick or they may have to work,” says Sathy. “I want all my students to know we can make it work.”

Aaron Richmond, PhD, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, says that moving online doesn’t change a key factor of teaching and learning: the importance of a positive teacher-student relationship. He encourages instructors to support stressed-out students. “Now more than ever, we as instructors need to do what we can to increase rapport,” he says.

Learn from other instructors. Since research on online learning may be difficult for faculty to navigate with so much else going on, some instructors are pooling resources to share best practices. Gurung has been aggregating research on Twitter, on his blog, Pedagogical Pundit, and on a corresponding Facebook group. “We’re trying to direct people to what might be most useful,” he says.

Amy Fineburg, PhD, president of APA Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), heads up a Facebook group for psychology teachers that has more than 5,000 active members who share teaching ideas and resources. Now, she says, during the pandemic, teachers are actively sharing resources for everything from pedagogy to psychological well-being.

Rethink how you assess learning. When primary and secondary students are learning remotely, it may be important to consider alternative ways of ensuring they are on track to move on to the next grade. Barbara Means, PhD, an executive director at Digital Promise, says psychologists working with school systems can help them think about the best ways to see where students are with respect to grade-level expectations and how to work in more learning time after the immediate crisis has ended.

“There’s a need for a more flexible, individualized approach to instruction, so there are going to have to be changes to the way school systems think about accountability and how they respond to individual student needs,” she says.

Pick the right technology. Successful distance learning often requires having the right platforms, says Sue Frantz, MA, a professor of psychology at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington, and a leader in the fields of instructional design and technology. To start, she asks how instructors teach face-to-face, then translates that style to a digital environment. “For example, if an instructor has a lot of student interaction and small group work, we’d recommend using a service like Zoom,” she says.

It’s also important for teachers to consider the specific needs of their students while planning online courses, she says. Highline, which has a higher concentration of English language learners, has created online resources in other languages. And since many students only access the internet on their phones, Frantz encourages faculty to implement apps that also work well on mobile phones, like Zoom or Slack.

Even more important, says Frantz, instructors should keep the changes to coursework manageable, for teacher and student alike. “While there are all kinds of great tech and best practices in online teaching, now is not the time to try to do everything,” she says. “Be kind to yourself and to your students.”


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