How to confidently support independent practice in the online classroom

Guided and independent practice look different in the online classroom than in the physical one. This doesn’t mean that practicing what students have learned is any less effective or important. 

However, some teachers have found it difficult to find a balance between the two. Guided practice seems like the best approach in synchronous online instruction, whereas independent practice is often overused in asynchronous settings. 

Most of the time, though, educators complain that there’s just not enough time to do it all, meaning that guided practice will usually take over the entire lesson. 

Independent practice is one of the principles of effective instruction that teachers shouldn’t overlook. Although students need guidance, they also need to be challenged and confident to do things independently. It’s OK to struggle a bit as long as the task falls within the zone of proximal development and they know they can count on your feedback for their independent work. 


Read more: 5 Principles of effective instruction adapted for online teaching


Supporting independent practice in the online classroom

Independent practice should reflect the most important parts of the lesson. To make it truly work, you should trust that students will manage to become just a little bit more independent each day. Here are some ideas to help you incorporate more independent practice in your online classroom: 

  1. Make room for independent practice

    Even if it’s not perfect and won’t work 100 percent of the time, make sure that a part of the lesson is dedicated to independent practice. If you find it hard to squeeze in, make it a priority by adding it to your lesson plan. 

    Here are some ideas that might help:

    • start with ten minutes of practice spaced throughout the lesson;
    • use a timer to keep track of independent practice activities; 
    • keep a tally of weekly independent practice hours.

     
    Additionally, students should be aware from the get-go that your class will have independent activities so they’ll know what to expect. 

  2. Get students used to new activities

    If your students are used to relying on you, deciding to incorporate a lot of independent practice may be confusing at first. It may be counterproductive since they can get stuck easier and feel like they have nobody to turn to for help. 

    That’s why you can try to:

    • gently move from guided activities to independent practice with more tasks added as the school year progresses; 
    • using video conferencing, allow students to work on their own, but you are also there to help them through chat or instant messaging; 
    • focus on one learning goal at a time so the activities won’t require juggling many concepts at once. 

     
    The last one is important, as cognitive overload may settle in quickly since they probably haven’t solidified the newest concepts. 


    Read more: 6 Steps that prove any teacher can create educational videos


  3. Get their approval

    Many teachers have adopted a strategy of expectation setting. The same thing applies to independent practice since students — online or in the physical classroom — have to be willing to work on their own or in groups in the first place. 

    You can also get them to brainstorm ideas for what they could be doing extra, not for homework, not for tests, but for themselves. For instance, get your students together in a Zoom meeting and have them come up with ideas. You can also add some hints and suggestions of activities and see how they respond to them: 

    • watch an educational YouTube video;
    • listen to a podcast
    • work in pairs to address homework questions together;
    • get together on chat to discuss the lesson. 

     
    You’d be surprised how creative they can be. Brainstorming also helps students who usually don’t look for extra resources themselves. In this way, they see how their peers practice independently and use the wealth of online resources available to them.


    Read more: The 4 Rs Model: Gen Z’s expectations about education


  4. Scaffolding

    Scaffolding is a big part of getting students ready for independent work. Effective instruction requires lessons broken down into chunks, with clear learning objectives and examples for students. If they have a good understanding of the material, it’s much easier to make progress independently. 

    Here are a few suggestions: 

    • in live sessions, make sure to model activities and use the think aloud strategy often; 
    • in asynchronous lessons, make sure to attach resources such as images, videos and other materials that can help students complete novel tasks on their own; 
    • after a lesson, modify online assignments to suit students’ needs by changing the instructions before assigning them. 

     
    The last part is essential since not all lessons go as planned, and you can already tell at the end of a lesson if students need a simpler or more challenging assignment to do at home. That’s why it’s good to save a few assignments in your learning management system and simply modify instructions or assign the most appropriate one. 


    Read more: Assessing with multiple choices instead of multiple-choice


  5. Move from monitoring to reflection

    Learning platform analytics help you see how much time students spend using the platform, which lessons have been completed, and where they need more help. However,  keeping this to yourself isn’t helping them achieve their goals.

    You can:

    • show students how much they’ve progressed. Your LMS can automatically show their progress in lessons as well;  
    • send updates to students to make them aware of how much time they spend and how they spend it;
    • encourage students to keep a learning diary with daily or weekly updates on the same platform. 

     
    For example, they can have 30 minutes of practice on Tuesday and 15 minutes on Thursday. The goal is for them to understand how this time is spent and that they don’t need to practice for hours each day for your class – they can use spaced repetition and other more effective methods. That’s why you should also never grade time spent in a platform since time doesn’t equal quality!

    This encourages them to be mindful of their independent practice and reflect on what they are doing, not just doing things because they have to. 


    Read more: Digital reflection tools your students can use in class


  6. Incorporate more low stakes practice

    Low stakes doesn’t equal low effort. On the contrary, taking that pressure off can result in better assignments and more thoughtful answers. 

    Low stakes practice can look like: 

    • using prior knowledge to solve new problems; 
    • thought-provoking assignments that challenge students to talk to others or go outside to complete;
    • non-graded tasks that won’t count towards their final grade, but students get rewarded for completing them by receiving a badge in the platform or feedback from you. 

     
    For example, one of my favorite low-stakes tasks for a Foreign Language Class is to go to the grocery store and pretend that they are in a different country. They make a list of the products to buy and translate them into another language, and then simply rehearse the vocabulary as they’re shopping. 


    Read more: How edtech helps students demonstrate learning in more than one way


  7. Feedback

    No feedback can result in lost and confused students — even if they’re high schoolers or college students. Even more, for successful independent practice, you can also ask students for their feedback. 

    • written, audio, and even video feedback should be used to simplify and augment the feedback process; 
    • leave comments on their assignments and use rubrics to show them what they need to do to improve; 
    • the feedback they get on their independent work should also reflect how they’ve learned, not just the content they’ve learned. 

     
    The most effective feedback also incorporates comments about using different methods to arrive at a conclusion or appreciating that they’ve used all the resources to improve their assignments. It should help them understand what they’re doing well in their independent work. You’re essentially encouraging a deeper understanding of the learning material while also encouraging them to keep up their good habits. 


    Read more: How to give feedback to students in the online learning environment


  8. Bonus: Balance tech and non-tech activities

    Students can get digital fatigue, especially if they equate screen time with more learning time. That’s why reading a paper book is an easy way to get a break from screens. However, they can take a few minutes to complete an online quiz to check their understanding after reading it. 

    Other ideas include more hands-on projects: 

    • making a handwritten list of the Math and Science formulas they’ll need to memorize;
    • growing a plant as a project;
    • creating an art project;
    • to practice handwriting, they can take a picture of their short essays and upload them. 

     
    These are all things that require tech only in the final stages —- checking for understanding and sharing their work. The result is less screen time, but you still have a way to monitor progress.


    Read more: How to do more with less screen time


Summary

Independent practice can make a difference in your virtual classes as long as students have adequate guidance. Challenging students to work on their own can seem like an extra step, but it’s a surefire way to ensure that students aren’t just memorizing information. To achieve this, make independent practice a priority, include it in live lessons, and ensure that they have enough resources to tackle tasks independently. 

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