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October 20, 2020

Keeping students on task while distance learning

Distance learning is hard.

It is hard for students who must work extra diligently on staying focused and for parents who must guide them. It is also hard for teachers who have fewer means to help students stay on track.

While it may seem overwhelming to guide students through these times, both as parents and teachers, there are a few things we can do to help them stay organized.

Tips and tricks to help students stay on top of their classwork  It takes time for students to see the advantages of good organizational skills, so be patient and as they build habits, they will find they are less stressed and feel like they are moving forward.

Keep everything in one place

Before sitting down to work, it helps to have everything in hand. All the reference materials, instructional files and links a student needs to accomplish a task should be readily available, ready to be used. When all a students' materials are organized, they avoid missing important aspects of their assignments or spending unnecessary time trying to get their information together. This is time gained for other activities.

Breaking down tasks

We all feel overwhelmed when we have many things to do and feel like we have little time to do them. Often, we have fewer items than we think, but not listing them clearly makes it feel like we have more. That’s why teaching students to make lists helps lower their anxiety by making everything concrete and more attainable, giving them a better sense of control. For complex tasks, breaking them down into smaller steps has the same effect. A term exam coming up in two weeks is stressful, but breaking it down into chapters to review by a certain date gives students a way to track their progress and see how they will achieve their goal. So reviewing chapter 3 by Tuesday, 4 by Wednesday and 5 by Thursday for Friday’s term exam is a lot less stressful than studying 3 chapters sometime this week..

Plan out your week to avoid surprises

We all forget things during our week, sometimes realizing at the last minute that we should have started earlier on a project, or that some unforeseen event is interfering with our ability to finish on time. We even forget important milestones, exams and homework because we don’t see the deadline lurking a few pages further in our planners. Often, this makes us cram a lot of work at the last minute raising stress levels. Showing students that by taking a few minutes every day to look at their coming week or weeks is helpful, which comes down to building a timeline of their tasks to come. No more surprises. Also, instructing them to write down personal events, visits to grandma, sporting activities and concerts, or even binging a new series when it is released, allows them to give themselves personal time, and plan around that. This will feel rewarding.

Build habits - schedule specific times to work

With proper habits, everything becomes much simpler. Building them requires effort and consistency though. Ideally, start immediately and put down some scheduled “planning time” in the schedule. Put aside 10 minutes every morning to review everything on your plate, see what is new and go through the planning step above. It is difficult to commit time to plan every day at first, even to save time later. Students may need to be convinced as they might feel like they are wasting time. Yet, after building a list of what they wish to achieve in a day and checking off items as they, will feel rewarding to them. The feeling of lowered stress will help them see the value.

Sometimes, adopting a system helps nurture a bit of excitement towards getting organized. You can explore the following two methodologies of breaking down daily tasks with your students:

Time blocking

This consists in dividing your day in blocks and assigning specific task types to be accomplished in each block. Homework, study time, reading, exercise are all great ways to group tasks together. Students may also divide tasks by subject or some other system. A school schedule is already a familiar way to time block for students. But they might not think of creating their own “Classes” to fill their time on their own. When working remotely, schools often preserve their regular schedules, adding remote video conferences within the existing time blocks. Sometimes classes are shortened and half the day is made available for flexible work. This is the time which can be split by students into their own patterns. For example, a student can add a 20 minute block for “Homework” every night followed by a 5 minute break and another 20 minute “Study time” block. And because having fun is important as well, nothing prevents them from adding a specific block for watching an episode of their favorite show, if they planned for it on that day. Make sure to adapt the size of the blocks to the age of the student of course.

Pomodoro method Another tool students can use is the Pomodoro method, named after those tomato-shaped kitchen timers. You can ever provide a cute or whimsical kitchen timer to go with this. It is quite simple: pick a task, set a 25-minute timer, work on the task until it rings. Take a 5-minute break. Start over.  After 4 Pomodoros, take a 20 minute break, then start the whole cycle over. The short breaks help get a sense of moving forward and provides a short reward for working in a focused way. Breaking down larger tasks into smaller steps will help with this and define which subtask to focus on.

Make your own explainer videos

Sometimes, it is more about understanding the work fully than the time spent on it. When studying, students often simply read their notes multiple times, trying to commit information to memory. This might not be a great use of time in the end. Referring back to Bloom’s taxonomy, one reaches a much deeper sense of understanding by applying and analysing knowledge than from simply reading and recalling information. Creating content also prompts better questions to ask the teacher as the student hits well-defined challenges when trying to explain. Knowing what you don’t understand is a great way to learn the next thing. Especially with abstract concepts, such as how to resolve certain equations, explaining a suite of events in history or how to pronounce a foreign language, it is very helpful to try to explain these to someone else to ensure we really understand them.

Resulting explainer videos can be shared with friends and vice-versa to help each other out, offering an alternative way of viewing information from the teacher’s perspective. It is good practice to validate that the information within such explainers is correct though.

These different ways to support self-organization have been used by many teachers and support staff over the years but many more exist. Perhaps you have your own way of helping students work from home during these strange times. So feel free to comment and let us know how you work with your students in taking control of their time at home by commenting below!