I’ve been working with students for close to twenty years, and even though I don’t work in a physical classroom any more, I still treasure the notes I get from students and parents. The best piece of mail I received this year was a note from a parent in June: “Without your help, graduating wouldn’t have been possible.” In my role as the Director of Student Support at One Schoolhouse, I worked with students with a wide range of learning profiles and accommodations, and helped to devise and implement plans for success. These plans often made the difference between surviving and thriving in an online course. And although I can’t talk about this from the perspective of an educational psychologist, I can tell you what I’ve seen work in our online courses, and what challenges students with learning differences frequently encounter. Here, I’m sharing the four most important things I’ve learned.
The best online courses are designed to support a lot of standard accommodations. Some of the most common accommodations--for example, written instructions, recorded lectures, and work plans--are standard best practices in online courses. In addition, students may be more willing to accept differentiated support, because it’s much more subtle (and often private) in the online space. Because course content lives online, students aren’t time-bound. They can access work any time it’s needed, and take as long as they need to absorb it, which means that students with slower processing speeds don’t have to worry about missing information. The best online learning environments give students a guide to progressing in a linear fashion, which supports executive functioning challenges. Moving seminar-style discussions to online discussion boards gives everyone the chance to participate without relying on interpreting social cues, a skill that can be especially challenging for students on the autism spectrum.
Extended time is just as important online as it is in the classroom. Just like in your classrooms, assessment strategies vary widely in online courses. For the most traditional assessments--time-limited and closed-resource--students who receive extended time still need that accommodation. In fact, they may need more time if online testing is a novel environment. The changes in format can lead to increases in anxiety or decreases in attention regulation, which may put an added burden on students’ cognitive load. Most learning management systems allow teachers to add time to individual students’ accounts or tests. If you’re assigning traditional summative assessment, it’s a good idea to require a reflection after students complete it, so you can get a sense of how students perceive their experience of testing in the online environment.
Executive functioning deficits may need additional support. Asynchronous work requires a whole suite of executive functions, including self-awareness, self-motivation, planning, and problem-solving. For students with identified challenges with executive functioning, it’s important to engage explicitly with how students are learning, not just what they’re learning. Many times, these students have developed their own systems to compensate for their challenges; when school moves online, those systems may not be as effective, and students will need help adapting them to a new setting. We use a host of tools (both analog and digital) to help us understand what students’ patterns are in order to help them make changes. For these students, it’s often helpful to bring paper resources into the mix--printing out assignment lists, adding them to paper calendars or planners, and writing out daily work plans or playlists.
Teachers have transformative powers, both online and in person. We all know that strong relationships between teachers and students correlate to higher achievement in the classroom. The same pattern is true in online courses. When a student believes that a teacher authentically cares about their experience, they deepen their engagement. Demonstrating that caring is second nature to most teachers when they’re in the classroom, but it may feel awkward or antithetical when teaching online. It’s not! Meeting with students regularly on videoconferencing gives teachers the opportunity to ask the same questions they’d ask in the halls: How’s your sports season going? Seen any good tv lately? If a student is having a hard time mastering material, start by strengthening the teacher connection.
We’re going to be talking about effective online student support--including helping to provide accommodations--in our Academic Leaders webinar on September 2 at noon ET. In this webinar, our student support team will share the strategies they use to assist students who are enrolled in a wide range of courses at very different schools. Sign up to join us at https://bit.ly/2JnNrf2
Interested in learning more about supporting students in this coming year? Join us for in Steady in the Storm: Protecting Student Mental Health in Hybrid Learning Environments with Dr. Lisa Damour and Liz Katz
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)