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The 2019-20 school year was unique, to say the least. In March 2020, teachers and students in my district went on spring break … and then did not return, due to the pandemic. As was the case all over the country, teachers, students, and parents did their best to engage in emergency remote learning, but it came with a steep learning curve. Although it was difficult for everyone, we collectively made it through the school year.

When the 2020-21 school year began, teachers planned for a variety of hybrid, in-person, and remote learning options. Since then, teachers have adapted to their circumstances and found new ways to continue facilitating student learning despite the challenges. In my case, this means that I teach three sections of science in-person and one section remotely, every day. While my district has primarily been in-person this school year, we did go to full-remote for two weeks.

Over the past few months, I have relied upon a few key strategies to continue to move my students’ learning forward, whether they were learning in the physical classroom or remotely. Some of these strategies were in place prior to remote learning, but I have expanded their use to better meet the needs of my students. These include weekly check-in surveys, video assignment instructions, and Edpuzzle videos for experiments and demonstrations.

Figure 1. Example of the author’s weekly check-in survey for students.

Weekly check-in surveys

One critical aspect of my practice during the 2019-20 school year was having my 8th grade science students complete a weekly check-in survey, and I’ve decided to continue this practice this year as well. I utilize Google Forms to create the weekly surveys and administer them on Fridays. When students enter the classroom, their first task is to complete the survey.

As shown in Figure 1, each survey consists of fewer than 10 questions, most of which are the same from week to week. I ask the students what their grade is in science, and why they have that grade. It is an opportunity for reflection, as students who are doing well explain the reason for their success, while students who are not doing as well are able to reflect upon assignments they can correct or complete.

I also ask the students to reflect upon the week and write about something they are looking forward to. I always include a question that allows for students to share any other information that they think is important for me to know. Collecting this information on a weekly basis helps me monitor students’ understandings of science, and gain insight into potential outside factors that may be impacting their performance. The survey results come in handy when speaking with parents, too.

Last but not least, in a school year where talking with students between classes and attending after-school events isn’t possible, the survey provides me with a way to continue to connect with students. For instance, a student may share information regarding an activity they are looking forward to, and I can ask them how it went when I see them in class the next week. While I began using the weekly surveys to connect with students during the pandemic, I plan to continue to use them on a regular basis when we return to our regular schedule.

Quick video instructions

A couple of years ago, I began creating brief instructional videos to help students understand how to complete assignments. These videos generally explained tasks such as how to navigate through an online simulation or how to submit a homework assignment. During the pandemic, I have begun to rely more heavily on this strategy. My in-person students are on a block schedule, so many of them only see me every other day. Unfortunately, this means that they may have forgotten the instructions between the time I gave them and when they begin working on the activity. Additionally, my in-class students may have difficulty hearing my instructions due to the mask that I wear, and my brief video instructions enable these students to access the instructions on demand and take some responsibility for their learning.

There are many programs available to teachers who want to create video instructions. I utilize Screencast-O-Matic, a free program that allows me to record both my computer screen and my webcam. This provides students with an opportunity to see me giving the instructions as I work through them on the screen. When I make videos, I ensure that they are very short and to the point, highlighting critical questions or challenges that students might encounter. I post the videos, along with the related assignment, on Google Classroom. When I give instructions during class, I remind students that they can access the instructional videos as needed.

Audio feedback on assignments

During the pandemic, I’ve also started providing audio feedback regarding student work. Students electronically complete the majority of the activities I assign, just as they did prior to the pandemic. In the past, when students missed a question on an assignment, I would leave written feedback in the margins of the electronic document or on a digital rubric. Students could access the feedback whenever they chose, but they also had the option to come to my classroom during study hall or before or after school if they had questions regarding the feedback.

As our daily routine changed due to the pandemic and remote learning, however, I found fewer students asking questions about my feedback or making corrections to their work. To better understand why, I asked. Some students noted that they did not know how to access the feedback, so I spent time with students in each section explaining the process. While this was a good first step, I noticed that students were still not asking questions about the feedback and the number of assignment corrections was still low, either because they were unclear about the feedback’s meaning or only they had only given my feedback a cursory glance. In order to prevent these reading and comprehension difficulties from impacting my students’ understanding of the feedback, I decided to start using audio feedback.

I use Google Classroom with my students, so I decided to use Mote, a voice-recording app that easily integrates with Google applications. Mote has a premium version, but I use its free version in my classroom. As I am grading a student assignment in Classroom, all I need to do to leave audio feedback is click the Mote button, select record, speak my feedback into my computer’s microphone, and select done. Students are able to listen to the feedback as many times as they like.

Providing audio feedback allows me to give students additional detail in my responses, such as by changing the inflection of my voice or emphasizing key words. Providing audio feedback also allows students to look at their page while listening to my comments, rather than looking back and forth between their responses and the written feedback. Utilizing this type of feedback also benefits me as a teacher. Each day I receive a notice regarding how many of my voice notes have been listened to, and how many students are accessing my feedback. Additionally, I am able to quickly leave my audio feedback, reducing the amount of time I spend on providing feedback.

Edpuzzle videos for experiments and demonstrations

Figure 2. Preparing to make a video recording of a lab.

I flipped my classroom a few years ago, so my instruction has contained a video content portion for a while now. In a typical year, I would have students view videos with lecture notes as their homework and then we would complete hands-on activities during class time.

This year, I have come to rely heavily upon video instruction for my remote learners. At the beginning of the year, I would try and conduct experiments in real-time with my virtual students. I would conduct the experiment using an online video platform, while they watched and shared their ideas. This quickly became frustrating for both my students and for me. Some students would lose their connection and get kicked out of the meeting, and would then ask me to repeat the steps I had just completed. Other students had lagging connections or audio/visual difficulties, so they were not able to participate in the discussion. I decided the best way to meet the experiment-related needs of the greatest number of students was to record them.

I began by making videos of myself following the procedures outlined in the experiment, using Screencast-o-Matic. Once I recorded my videos, I uploaded them to Edpuzzle, a free program teachers can use to share videos with their students. Teachers are able to edit their videos and embed questions for students to answer as they view each video. I appreciate the way that Edpuzzle integrates with Google Classroom and provides analytics regarding the amount of time students spend engaged with each video.

For general demonstrations, I record the video and embed questions that students answer throughout the process to make sure they are actively engaged in viewing the information. Students are also required to refer to a lab sheet as they view the video. This process works well for demonstrations and to build students’ general understanding, but I also need students to experience the inquiry process.

This becomes a little more challenging on the part of the teacher, as it requires creating multiple recordings. For one activity, my students needed to design a method to better understand the Law of Conservation of Mass when a gas is produced. The general idea was for students to design and conduct their own experiments for this activity, something that was not possible for my remote learners at home — so I needed to find a way to facilitate this through my lab. I tried to mirror the process that I used for my face-to-face learners by showing the students the variety of equipment available to use and having them design the experiments. From there, I conducted their experiments and recorded each one. The students were then able to view the recordings of the experiment they designed as well as the experiments designed by others prior to our synchronous meeting. During our synchronous class, we discussed the videos they had watched.

While this process is very time-consuming, I have found it to be effective in better meeting the needs of my remote learners. I have a very limited amount of time with them, so having them view the lab activities prior to class ensures that we have enough time to discuss the science concepts behind them. This practice has also been effective for students who are absent, by providing them with the opportunity to access any lessons they missed.

Conclusion

This school year has been a learning experience for everyone. While there have been many challenges, teachers have used their creativity to find ways to meet the needs of their students. As I reflected upon my own practice, I found ways to modify my current teaching strategies, such as the flipped classroom, to better meet the needs of my remote learners. I have also employed new strategies this year, such as providing audio feedback on student work and conducting weekly check-in surveys.

I will continue to reflect upon the effectiveness of these strategies and modify them as necessary. I still use paper copies of work and activities for students who do not have internet access, and I will find ways to continue to ensure that all of my students are able to move forward in learning science, regardless of their learning context.


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