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  • Writer's pictureMarynn Dause

#DistanceLearning Research Highlights: Best Practices with Large Classes, Plus Snarky Tips for PD

Hey teacher! Here's the deal - I just read four recent meta-research articles about online class management so you don't have to. The "most useful quotes" that I pulled were 700+ words. That's too long for a blog post, so I'm paraphrasing like a boss. Ready for the breakdown?!

Best Practices

discarded plans and papers all over the floor
The trick is picking the right tool for the job.

Long story short, the things that work in person also work online. It's just tricky figuring out how to make that leap. I wrote about learning how to use new tech - read it here! For example, setting norms and ground rules at the beginning is still critical to success. The older students are, the more you can share that decision-making process with them. Younger students in particular benefit from play-acting what norms look like in practice. Middle grade students respond well to "is it or isn't it?" categorizing of behaviors or examples.

Similarly, taking time early on to help students learn how to use tools will pay off big over the school year. Several researchers note that video instructions (apparently Screencastify will now let you save screencasts as .gifs?) are easier for learners to follow than written instructions.

Groups of students, especially small breakout groups, benefit online just like they do in person from having some kind of structure to follow, whether that be "jobs," a series of questions, or another concrete activity to complete. You should still aim to make discussions interesting, high value, and generally brief. It's better for participants to walk away thinking, "I wish we'd talked longer, I had more to say," than thinking, "That was way too long and so boring. I didn't pay any attention." Remember that peer reviews of work and general community building is also still a good idea.

And yes, critically, small groups are still better than whole groups for in-depth work. Big groups are fine if all you're doing is notes or lecturing. I was interested to find that one researcher specifically recommended that "instructors new to teaching online" should cap classes at 12. Several others noted that student participation rose along with instructor interaction when class sizes were 14 or fewer. I also really liked this summary quote: "low grades and high withdrawals can be a sign that the class ratio isn’t working, especially as the course is currently designed." (Burch, 2019) Like, yes. When kids get bad grades and withdraw, that is a pretty solid sign that something isn't working. But thanks for confirming the obvious?

Large Class Sizes

Speaking of small groups! Most of us don't have them. But fear not! This is actually one place where distance learning has a major advantage over face to face instruction. Here's another handy research tidbit for you: as explained by Dian Schaffhauser in her 2019 article,

[A trio of current and retired nursing professors conducted a research project by] "...exploring 58 articles from 43 online education journals related to the top of establishing online class sizes" [and found that] '15 or fewer students — are better for courses intended "to develop higher order thinking, mastery of complex knowledge and student skill development.'" (Taft, Kesten, El-Banna, 2019)

rows and rows of yellow rubber ducks
"Miss, I have a question! And so does he."

Did you grab that? "Courses intended to develop... student skill development." So guess what, teacher? The research says we're officially better off if we can interact with groups of 15 or fewer students at a time. *The one exception is online discussions. Apparently, those work just fine with groups of 20-30. It probably depends on the discussion software you're using, though.

So how do we get there? GROUPING! Or chunking, as I like to call it. (I know, I know, that's a productivity term, it doesn't usually apply to people. Chill out, I call it what I want.) Here's what you do: take your total # of students and, if at all humanly possible, break them up into groups of about 15. Then subdivide those 15 down into three groups of 5. The 15 is now your "whole group" and the three groups of 5 are "discussion" or "breakout" groups. Boom! You've immediately increased students' likelihood of success.

Is this going to require you to say the same things more than once? Yes. Might it be crazy tricky to work around required "bell schedules" and other nonsense? Also yes. BUT. Every single researcher I read said this was the best way to go in terms of student participation, deep learning, and skill acquisition. Plus, it's a heck of a lot easier to manage and chat with 15 or fewer people on a screen at once than it is 16+.

My first brainstorm on how to actually pull off 15 person groups within bigger class sizes is to do kind of a flipped-digital-classroom type of thing. So if I've got an hour where I'm supposed to work with a group of 30 students synchronously, I'm going to create or record a 10-15 minute video activity for half of the class to work on while I'm "with" the first whole group. At the 30 minute mark, we might do a community builder or fun activity with everyone, and then I'd have the two halves switch activities.

I KNOW it's a ton of button clicking and no small feat to pull off with Zoom or Canvas or whatever. But I think we could do it. More blog posts to come on this specific scenario, probably.

Snark Regarding Required Professional Learning / Development / Modules, etc.


I mean, sort of. Here's the thing: I've taught PD sessions. It's actually kind of a hobby of mine. So I don't mind a good PD event. It's just that so many of them are bad.

I briefly considered writing up advice on how to skip out of required PD modules while making it look like you were doing them. And sometimes, depending on your context and situation, I do think the "did-it-but-didn't-really-do-it" approach is actually the best one. It's just that you can probably figure that out on your own, so let's not waste words on it.

three people point to a map. no faces are seen, only hands.
"At least the sticky notes were fun to make."

On the other hand, sometimes you're required to attend a PD session on something that you actually DO need to know, like how to use the new LMS your school just bought, or updates to state rules and regs regarding your grade level. And here's the bad news - it might still SUCK. But somehow you've got to walk away with that information. What's a teacher to do?

Here's my process for Surviving and Actually Getting Something Useful Out of The Worst PD Ever:

Step 1 = figure out 1-3 things I want or need to know. Write these at the top of my paper 'cuz I still take notes on paper #oldschool

Step 2 = speed read or skim through EVERYTHING the PD session has provided (handouts, links, slides, etc) to figure out where the answer to my question actually is

Step 3 = if possible, zone out until the presenter reaches the section I identified in step 2. I like doodling and writing bad poetry for this step, but you do you.

Step 4 = during the important sections, KEY IN LIKE THERE'S NOTHING BETTER ON EARTH. I'm talking ask questions, take notes, request demos, the whole bit. Be annoying. This is the one part you're here for, so MAKE IT COUNT. (And count on your colleagues to zone out like you did in step 3 if this isn't their important part.)

*Optional Step 5 = if you anticipate that this session or module is really going to destroy your peace and sanity, and those do exist, make sure to schedule an important event or deadline so that you have to leave about an hour after the whole thing gets started. Doctor's visits work well for this. So do parenting tasks. Use this step very sparingly, though, and do double check the "get out of jail free" processes at your school for opting out early from required trainings. (Fun fact - a lot of times the "required make up training" is WAY shorter and less irritating than the original one!) I worked one school where they straight up didn't care if you walked out early as long as you had a verbal excuse prepared. At another school, if you didn't submit an official "request to leave early because I have a thing," you were in big trouble. So tread carefully, and consider reverting back to step 3 if possible. Most irritating events in life can be circumvented if you get creative with what your brain is doing while your body is occupied. Online events in particular are nice because you can walk around, knit, eat, color, or whatever while they're playing. But the pushing of buttons and answering of questions is still annoying. It's just one of those things, I guess.

Above all, remember this:

You are an intelligent person and you can figure this out. As a fully trained and certified teacher, you are a professional in the art of communicating information. Times and tools may change, but that never will.

Until next time,

P.S. Many thanks to @teachcrafttech on Instagram for inspiring this post

Takeaway Tip:

What you already know works in person also works online, you've just got to find the tools and techniques to get it there. Lots of folks have great ideas on how to do this. I googled "distance learning best practices" and found a bunch of stuff. For upper grades, my favorite series of articles were from ASU Online.

Sources in order of use:

"Class Size in Online Courses: What the Research Says," Barbra Burch,

"Research: Learning Intent Should Determine Online Class Size," Dian Schaffhauser,

"Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part 2: Managing groups, peer review, and other peer-to-peer interactions," Mary Loder,

Taft, Susan & Kesten, Karen & El-Banna, Majeda. (2019). One Size Does Not Fit All: Toward an Evidence-Based Framework for Determining Online Course Enrollment Sizes in Higher Education. Online Learning. 23. 10.24059/olj.v23i3.1534.

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