One Size Fits All? Hardly.

If “one size fits all” doesn’t work for clothes, why do we expect it to work for teaching?  If students learn by building knowledge from previously acquired concepts and experiences, we can expect that we will need to be prepared to teach by introducing multiple analogies and ways of explaining new concepts.  As teachers, we build a tool kit of instructional strategies over the years as we gain experience, taking note of our most successful lessons and “ah ha” moments when we see the light bulb come on for students. But how do we do this in a fully online environment where it is much harder to witness this enlightenment?  Here are some ideas from our online courses:

Differentiate Instructional Strategies

We know that students have different learning styles or modalities– visual, auditory and tactile. To communicate new concepts in online learning environments, try to incorporate all three as much as possible. Pictures, diagrams, paintings, and text help visual learners, while videos help both auditory and tactile learners, because body movements and gestures play key roles in kinesthetic awareness. You can also assign short activities for students to complete as part of the lesson. If students are learning about the distributive law, for example, you could explain and show how to simplify expressions by ‘distributing’ or multiplying a value into the terms inside the brackets. You could also show a video of this process, using visual analogies to help students build knowledge based on prior knowledge and experience.

Finally, you could have students complete an activity away from the computer using objects (like coins or paper clips) to prove the concept from the video to themselves.  In the video, we use blocks to demonstrate the same example above.

Use Familiar Analogies

When explaining concepts for the first time, we clearly define new terms and explain how the concept works using familiar concepts, or universal analogies. For example, in our grade 10 history course, we explain to students that history consists of selections of stories about a time period or events in the past, and that history is something we build.  Every time we select examples to tell a story about the past, we are participating in the process of building history.  A good analogy that most students can relate to would be talking about their summer holidays with friends. Students probably would not describe their summer breaks by listing people and dates; instead, they might tell a few stories about their most memorable experiences that best represent their holidays— they may have gone to a concert, for example.  Then, we introduce students to the concept of evidence and how we can prove that something happened with a lesson on primary and secondary sources. This lesson from Virtual High School includes the following video to help auditory and kinesthetic learners:

When explaining how we use sources as evidence, we stick with the analogy of the concert: what if their friends didn’t believe that they had attended the concert? What could they show their friends to prove that the concert occurred and that they were in attendance? The lesson provides some examples and then asks the students to try a tactile activity to demonstrate their understanding of primary sources. They are given a list of sources, and students are asked to sort them into primary sources and secondary sources with a drag-and-drop interactive activity.  If they have trouble, they receive immediate feedback on the correct answers and are encouraged to contact their teacher for clarification.  Finally, students are asked to participate in a discussion with their peers and teacher to communicate a story about themselves and to provide evidence that the story is true.  Seeing the examples of evidence that their peers chose helps students to broaden their understanding of sources.  Frequent communication and check-points with their peers and teacher are key elements in a successful online learning experience for students.

When we are in the classroom, we can adjust the lesson as it continues and check in with students who seem confused.  We can come up with new analogies and activities to help reach more students.  In a fully online environment, it’s harder to intervene on-the-spot.  We have to differentiate instruction, use familiar analogies, and allow students as much choice as possible to allow them to build on prior knowledge.  The best part is that revising and perfecting instructional strategies for online courses is fun and challenging– new technologies are always emerging to offer new ways to reach various types of learners.  We need to do our best to reach everyone and to  provide opportunities for students to build on their own experiences.  We’re not all the same; one size doesn’t fit all.  After all, even if everyone in the world could fit into the same hat, we’re not all hat people.

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