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Helping Students Make Sense in Remote Learning

By Rachel Patton

Posted on 2020-07-30

Recently while discussing a possible kitchen remodel, my husband asked me a question about our tile floor. “I have no idea,” I responded, “and I don’t even know how to figure that out.”

That sentiment is one that students in science class often feel, and “I don't even know how to figure that out” can be an insurmountable barrier to engaging in discussion, planning investigations, or even finding the questions to ask to get started. As science teachers, helping students make sense of things and helping them learn how to make sense of things is one of the most important parts of our jobs. During our careers, we have developed toolboxes full of strategies we can use to help students figure things out. We teach students how to engage in science practices as scientists do. And we help students learn how to work together: how to collaborate; ask one another probing, open-ended questions; provide constructive feedback; and explain things to one another.

This past spring, school as we knew it came to an abrupt end. Every teacher was suddenly an online teacher, every student was suddenly an online learner, and nearly everyone found themselves in the panicked position of “I have no idea how to do this, and I don’t know how to figure it out.” My school district assembled a fairly comprehensive list of online tools and resources and provided training on how to use these tools to support students. In three days, I was practically an expert at integrating EdPuzzle, PearDeck, and Screencastify into my lessons.

These tools were instrumental in my remote science teaching, and students found these additions quite helpful in navigating difficult concepts, but I struggled to check in with my students. In the classroom, I can float from group to group; I can chat with students whose pens have not yet moved; I can peek at the ideas or initial models they’ve jotted down and ask them clarifying questions or help them address misconceptions. Though Google Docs and EdPuzzle have feedback mechanisms—comments, suggestions, responses—I had trouble with the interactions that happened naturally in the classroom. I found it difficult to provide meaningful feedback in real time, and I especially struggled with getting my students to work collaboratively. Many students were participating asynchronously due to work and family obligations, and I felt like we were a loose network of pen pals instead of a group of people working together to figure out phenomena.

Much of my summer planning and brainstorming has focused on this challenge: How do we connect with students, or stay connected with students, when teaching through screens? Engaging in discussions, asking questions, and showing one’s thinking can be scary endeavors for students, so it is important to create a supportive classroom environment where students know they are all working together. How will we build and maintain those supportive relationships with students, and how will students build those relationships with one another, in a remote learning environment, or if we only see students in person once or twice a week? If we do return to in-school instruction, how will student collaboration look while students are socially distancing?

One tool I didn’t know about until the end of May was Google Jamboard. This interactive whiteboard allows users to collaborate in real time using drawings, repositionable notes, or images. It can be a class “parking lot” or word wall, a driving questions board following the introduction of an anchoring phenomenon, and a place for students to share thoughts, questions, and feedback with one another at any stage of any lesson. Students can work together on a Jamboard in much the same way they can huddle together over a whiteboard in class. And as in a physical classroom, students can visit other groups’ Jamboards in a “gallery walk” and leave questions and feedback. Web conference tools with chat functions also work well for quick, whole-group brainstorming, and private chats or breakout rooms are a great way to recreate the feeling and utility of face-to-face discussions and allow students to think together.

PearDeck, which has been remarkably responsive to students’ and teachers’ needs during this pandemic, enables teacher dictation over slides. Teachers can read the slides or provide context or a deeper explanation, giving students another way to engage with the content asynchronously. PearDeck also allows teachers to incorporate a variety of checks for understanding. Teachers can add open-ended questions with text boxes, multiple-choice questions, draggable content for matching or fill-in-the-blank questions, or a “draw” function that allows students to draw or type whatever they want. This allows students multiple opportunities to interact with content and engage in sensemaking activities to demonstrate understanding, while the teacher dashboard provides an easy, organized view of all student responses.

PearDeck can be teacher-led during synchronous instruction, which prevents students from advancing slides on their own, then switched to student-paced mode for students learning asynchronously. PearDeck also now includes the ability to provide feedback to student responses in slides; I would have loved to have had the feedback option in April, and this is another tool I am excited to start using this fall.

Some of us are a month or less away from the start of school with more questions than answers. These tools can help teachers prepare, at least somewhat, for the different forms school may take this fall. They enable teachers to not only talk to students, but also to listen, and they will likely be necessary tools in building and maintaining relationships with a whole new group of students. My hope is that I can provide as many tools and avoid as few obstacles as possible so my students can get right to work figuring things out.


Rachel Patton
Rachel Patton has been an educator for 13 years; she has taught high school science in New Orleans, Louisiana, and currently teaches in Denver, Colorado. She also co-sponsors her school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. She recently completed her master of science degree in science education at Montana State University and is a member of her district's chemistry curriculum team. Patton also works with inquiryHub as a curriculum writer and has co-authored several chemistry storylines to be released in the future. 

Note: This article is featured in the July 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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