Why this is not the time for large-scale educational experiments

4 Apr 2020, 5:00

At this time of rapid and dramatic change for teachers, the best solution is to keep calm and carry on with what we know works. Daniel Muijs, Dominique Sluijsmans and their co-authors draw on their forthcoming book, Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching to set out what that is

The sudden switch from face-to-face to online distance education has brought a new dynamic to teaching and raises many questions from pupils, teachers, mentors, and parents. At the same time, they are being bombarded with advice, tools and good practice from companies, social media and blogs. It’s a situation that could too easily result in e-tools overshadowing learning objectives if three key risks aren’t avoided.

First, limited experience with distance learning and the overload of advice can be counterproductive. The focus may shift to the tools instead of the coherence of learning goals, curriculum, teaching strategies and assessment/feedback – what might be called constructive alignment.

Second, the knowledge and experience some institutions have of distance learning can’t simply be transferred to other contexts. The starting point should always be the pupils.

Third, however well-intentioned, teachers and schools can easily overload pupils and staff. At a time when we are already dealing with a lot of change, we need to focus on what really matters.

Keeping these risks in mind, we should resist being drawn into experimentation, and draw on three important lessons we are familiar with from face-to-face education. Rather than allow the sense of urgency to convince us of their irrelevance, they are even more important to online education.

It is important not to overload pupils with busy work

In the first instance, we should remember that structure and transparency lead to greater peace of mind. It is important not to overload pupils with busy work, but to help them develop two fundamental habits instead: attending limited but scheduled online lessons (health permitting) and completing specified independent tasks weekly.

When organising sessions, keep them at fixed times, and not too frequent. Appropriate lessons for online learning are concise (15 to 20 minutes). Then, carefully choose the delivery channels and check the environment’s functionalities to maximise potential, and make objectives and expectations explicit to focus on supporting progress. Sharing worked examples with students before they start practising on their own is an effective strategy, and online videos are particularly good for this.

The second lesson is to use assessment formatively. Instead of focusing on regular tests or exams, the shift to distance learning is an opportunity to use testing as a learning strategy. This kind of retrieval practice can be quicker and less time-consuming, and research shows pupil motivation and success increase when they’re given low-stakes (self)tests to activate prior knowledge. Flash cards and Kahoot are accessible tools for this purpose.

Effective feedback is crucial. It should be goal-oriented and focused on progress. Here too worked examples are very useful. An efficient and effective feedback process should provide clarity on success criteria, transparency about timing, and require pupils to increase effort and aspiration.

The third crucial lesson is that most pupils don’t spontaneously choose the most effective learning strategies or plan their time efficiently. Yet that is precisely what distance learning requires them to do, and relying on their metacognitive skills risks increasing the attainment gap.

Processing content by explaining subject matter or problem-solving steps in their own words to themselves, family or peers can be helpful. Importantly, they will need support to space their studying over time. Multiple study sessions for each topic will ensure they review content. Three over a week is ideal. And of course, make sure pupils feel valued for the work they are doing. Success contributes to motivation, so acknowledging progress and attendance is vital.

At a time when we can’t expect pupils to attend all classes or to complete all assignments, experimenting with large-scale new educational approaches is too risky. Evidence-based instructional principles are just as valid online as in the classroom, despite what some might proclaim. In the end, the art of teaching effectively and efficiently is also the art of teaching enjoyably – for teachers and students alike.


This article is co-written with professor dr Paul Kirschner, Kristel Vanhoyweghen and Tim Surma of Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, Belgium, and Dr. Gino Camp of the Open University of The Netherlands.

It is reproduced and abridged from www.scienceguide.nl with permission from the authors, and translated by the authors and Tine Hoof of Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, Belgium



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  1. Bob Harrison

    This is not an “experiment” but another step along a direction of travel some schools and colleges have been pioneering despite the constraints of a techno-scepticism at the heart of education policy and reinforced by Ofsted,Ofqual and especially. It is such a tragedy that it has taken a deadly virus to catalyse a change resisted by the education establishment in recent years.