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It’s not too late to improve K-12 virtual instruction

February 4, 2021


It’s not too late to improve K-12 virtual instruction

Science-based tips for enhancing virtual teaching and learning

<a data-primary-product="" href="">Rebecca Richards</a> By Rebecca Richards February 04, 2021 6 min read Students and learning illustration

This year, the job of a teacher has possibly never been more difficult.

Teacher morale is low, and stress is high. The switch to fully virtual or hybrid learning during a pandemic has challenged even the most veteran teachers, forcing many to rethink their approach to pedagogy. But the good news is that teachers do not need to overhaul their pedagogy to be successful. Regardless of modality, good teaching is good teaching. For most educators, thriving in the virtual classroom requires a renewed focus on the basics of quality instruction and guidance as to how to translate their in-person best practices to an online environment.

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To serve these needs, the District Leadership Forum released a series of professional development videos to provide teachers easy-to-use, science-based strategies proven to increase learning outcomes, regardless of delivery mode. Use these videos during existing professional development or professional learning communities to learn about a range of topics from motivating disengaged students and building productive relationships to managing an online classroom and improving learning retention. Watch these videos at our K-12 Virtual Instruction Professional Development Resource Center or by filling out this form.

Beyond those topics, EAB identified a few other quality strategies to guide teachers in their virtual and hybrid classrooms. Read on for some additional virtual instruction pro-tips.

1. Structure time for informal activities to build class community

Students are more likely to succeed academically and emotionally in welcoming and supportive learning environments. Though adept at developing quality student relationships and facilitating supportive peer connections within brick-and-mortar classrooms, teachers often struggle to do so in a virtual classroom where synchronous time is limited.

Instead of a typical “morning meeting,” allocate just 10 minutes of existing synchronous class time twice a week for informal interactions with and between students using a “soft start” method. Soft starts are a time for students to mentally transition into class by engaging in a fun, non-academic activity with their classmates. This provides teachers time to connect personally with students in casual, small group settings just as they would in a classroom.


Allow students to choose each week between several soft start options-such as a virtual book club or an online group game like Sporcle trivia or Guess It. Teachers spend time meeting with one small group each day, joining in the activity, and conversing with students. This simple routine can help teachers develop relationships with students and create the supportive community students need for virtual learning success.

2. Use digital graphic organizers to help students recall key content

Graphic organizers are a tried-and-true favorite for teachers looking to scaffold a concept for their students and help them build connections across content. In fact, the brain makes connections best through graphics, images, and other visual representations, which is why graphic organizers are such a powerful learning tool. They help students explicitly link new learning to existing long-term memories.

But graphic organizers do not need to live exclusively on printed paper; editable digital graphic organizers are a great way to actively engage students in word associations and concept mapping in the virtual classroom. Check out the Universal Design for Learning Tech Toolkit for a variety of digital graphic organizers you can easily apply to your online lessons.

3. Rely on reassessment and reflection to increase student mastery

There are certain fundamental skills a student must master to succeed at the next grade level. But many students struggle to retain memory of this high priority content in the virtual classroom due to increased distractions at home and fewer opportunities to reinforce learning.

Continuously reassess the 3-5 most critical skills unit after unit to convey their importance and ensure students fully master them. Rephrase the questioning or ask a slightly different prompt each time to confirm students are fully equipped with these high priority skills and reteach them when necessary. This not only improves student success in the near-term, but it increases the likelihood students will commit these concepts to long-term memory.

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Another powerful tool for improving mastery and retention of content is self-reflection. Students should engage in metacognitive reflection regularly to ensure continuous growth. This develops ownership of learning and builds confidence. Reflection can also improve self-awareness of strengths and growth opportunities, which is even more important in a virtual or hybrid classroom where students have fewer opportunities for informal feedback from their teacher.

4. Improve assessment design to prevent academic dishonesty

A major concern for many educators teaching virtually is the inability to monitor students while taking an assessment or completing an assignment. Of course, the first step in preventing academic dishonesty is educating students on the importance of academic integrity. This is where trust and teacher expectations really matter. If students feel trusted by their teacher and are held to high standards, they are more likely to meet those standards.

In addition, reframing assessments through simple language tweaks and alternative formats can help prevent academic dishonesty. Consider the following tips when preparing assessments:

  • Embrace open-ended questions (e.g., “why” and “how” as opposed to “who” and “what”). This requires students explain their knowledge rather than simply repeat something they’ve memorized or looked up online.
  • Ask students to describe an example or create a scenario based on given criteria. This reinforces student problem-solving skills and demonstrates thorough understanding.
  • Give fully solved problems, diagrams, or scenarios that students must analyze and explain with evidence. This method emphasizes that assessments are not about right and wrong answers but about demonstrating learning and critical thinking.
  • Use application-based questions that encourage students to apply their knowledge to a real-life scenario. This illustrates students’ ability to adapt knowledge to a variety of contexts and helps students remember the content.

5. Provide extra time and multiple options for submission to increase the likelihood of student completion

Accommodations have been essential in helping students adjust to the demands of a virtual or hybrid learning environment. But providing ample time and student options are not just accommodations; they are also tools for inviting deeper learning, increasing productivity, and improving student motivation.

Consider offering students two days to submit all major assessments. When students have ample time to give the assessment their best effort, they’re more likely to invest that time and delve deeper into the learning. This time is especially valuable if using some of the open-ended questioning methods listed above.

Another option is to provide students with discussion questions at least one day before a discussion-based lesson or assessment, allowing them to review and write their responses in advance. This helps ensure students are prepared for the discussion, maximizing synchronous time and productivity.

Finally, allow students the agency and autonomy to choose how they submit an assignment. When identifying project formats, apply the “plus one” rule-provide at least one extra option for each assignment.  Maybe students can submit a written paragraph or a recorded audio file. Maybe they’ll choose to design a slide show as opposed to crafting a written essay.

Watch: Learn more about the “plus one” rule and its role in motivating students


Although quality pedagogy remains constant across learning modalities, adapting best practices to a new virtual learning environment can be daunting. Apply these tips and other advice from our virtual instruction video series to make the transition from in-person to virtual teaching smoother and more effective for all students.

Looking for Additional Virtual Instruction Resources?

Visit our Virtual Instruction Professional Development Resource Center for on-demand resources and videos aimed to improve virtual teaching and learning.

Visit the Resource Center

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Visit the Virtual Instruction PD Resource Center

The K-12 Virtual Instruction Professional Development Resource Center shares videos and other resources to help educators adopt successful virtual teaching strategies.

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