What the Pandemic Taught Us About Education (That We Already Knew) - ASCD
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September 15, 2021

What the Pandemic Taught Us About Education (That We Already Knew)

Instructional Strategies
What the pandemic taught us about education (blog thumbnail)
Credit: Ruslan Dashinsky

Three lessons learned and three solutions for moving forward.

As difficult and unprecedented as it has been, the pandemic is a gift to education. It has showed us radical change is possible, and it has forced us to reassess what school is for and how it should change in the long-term. Musing over the analyses of the last year from educators, parents, and pundits, there is remarkable similarity to what we learned and what we should do about it. 

1) We learned:

Students need to feel ownership to stay engaged.

What did students say they liked about remote learning?  They liked working at their own pace and setting their own schedule. They liked when they had the freedom to choose how and when to work and when to take breaks, as compared to being required to log on at a specific time to listen to direct instruction. They were more likely to complete work that allowed for choices in what they learned, how they learned, or how they showed what they had learned.

Once students were engaged with active, interesting tasks, we found that they really wanted to learn, but when immersed in the flow of learning, they wanted quick answers to their questions, even complaining that emailing the teacher took too long to get a response. To stay engaged, they needed feedback in real time, a difficult task for remote teachers.

We learned that many students didn’t know how to self-direct their own learning, perhaps because we’d not given them the freedom to do so in the past.  We learned that, in trying to help students, teachers sometimes did too much of the thinking for them, overdirecting learning and overstructuring tasks. When that happens, students miss the opportunity to think about their learning, generate and organize their thinking, and create strategies that work for them. We saw that students who were already accustomed to self-directed learning before the pandemic had an easier transition to remote learning.

The solution:

Give students ownership of their learning.

We can start by making sure our students know and understand the learning goals.  We can share the goals, rubrics for assessment, and give examples of what mastery and nonmastery looks like.  Then, we can involve students in designing and assessing their own learning. We can give students choices of activities or resources in how to reach the goal, or allow students to create their own learning activities. We can and should teach students how to assess the effectiveness of their methods.

One of the easiest places to begin is to allow students to choose or design the homework assignments that will best help them reach learning goals. The ultimate ownership of learning allows students to set and pursue their own goals, such as with passion projects—student-designed research about a topic that excites or inspires them. Usually, these projects can be aligned with required learning standards, while giving students freedom to choose the focus. It is the student’s responsibility to show how their project provides evidence of the learning standards.

2) We learned:

Grades, as traditionally used, don’t make sense.

The switch to virtual learning quickly exposed the limitations of traditional grading and forced us to grapple with the role of grades—whether to grade, how to grade, and what is fair.  The pandemic revealed the folly of using grades to control students or to punish a lack of work, turning off cameras, or not logging in. We learned that grades alone were insufficient to motivate students. But old beliefs about the power of grades die hard. Some educators still believed the use of grades would yield the participation they wanted, and so came the attempts to make grading during a global pandemic make sense. There were debates about pass/fail and fears that suspending grading would allow students to get away with checking out from learning, as if grades alone could compel the desired learning behavior.

The result was a lot of students with failing grades. And what did those failing grades mean?  Often, they were an indication of the amount of work that was completed—not of a lack of learning or mastery (and during a pandemic, no less!).

Therein exposed the biggest flaw in the traditional use of grades—grades focus too much on working and not enough on learning. We found that teachers who were already implementing standards-based or competency-based grading had a much easier time assigning grades during virtual learning. Instead of struggling with how many assignments were missing or submitted late, they based their grades on student mastery. After all, in a standards-based grading system, the student’s grade is based on the demonstration of learning, not the amount of work completed.

The Solution:

Adopt standards-based grading practices

Although a schoolwide transition to standards-based grading can be a long and arduous process (and we’ve all got plenty on our plates, especially this year), individual teachers can implement any number of standards-based grading practices fairly quickly, even within a traditional grading system. The goal is to shift the focus of grades so they more accurately reflect student learning.

Here are some options: Grade only the learning. Report items such as work habits, participation, and attendance separate from the academic grade. Give more ungraded formative feedback. If you must assign a grade to formative feedback, give the grade zero weight in the gradebook. Use homework as ungraded feedback, not as part of the grade. If you must count homework in the grade, limit its weight to 5-10 percent of the total grade. Allow retakes on assessments but only after evidence of remediation. (Retakes are especially important when homework cannot be used to inflate poor assessment performance).  After retakes or revisions, replace old information with new information. Give a grade of Incomplete when there is insufficient evidence of learning.

Related Resource

See Cathy Vatterott’s book Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning for more about how to adopt standards-based grading.

3) We learned:

Our secondary students were really, really stressed out, and school was a big part of it. 

Prior to the pandemic, the high levels of stress among secondary students was already a major concern.  A large national study compared survey results from 10,000 high school students from fall 2018 through fall 2020.  Not surprisingly, students reported increases in school-related stress during the pandemic. The top two sources of stress were grades (including tests and assessments) and overall workload—two things teachers have some control over.

The Solutions:

Lighten the workload.

If virtual learning revealed anything, it was that we are trying to teach too much content in the short time available. The most feasible solution is to revamp the curriculum—trim the fat to prioritize essential content and skills. Many teachers found they had to do this anyway due to the limitations of virtual learning. In some schools, teachers were directed to boil down the standards to the most essential and to focus on skills rather than the coverage of content.  

If students complain about workload, we must remember that we create the workload, often as a pretense of a “rigorous” curriculum. We must reject the idea that rigor necessitates a heavy workload. Rigor is about depth of thinking and application of higher-level skills, not how many novels students read or how many math problems they complete.

Assign less homework.

In the Challenge Success study noted above, secondary students consistently cited homework as excessive while not necessarily useful to their learning. Schools that have reduced the homework load, even in advanced classes, have seen no detrimental effects on achievement. Given the learning goals and some guidance, students can determine the type and amount of homework they need to succeed. By replacing daily homework with weekly or longer-term assignments and by being flexible about due dates, we can further reduce homework stress. We know there’s a limit to how much work students can do in a day—an efficient brain needs downtime, breaks, and sleep. Most high school students are not getting enough of any of those.

Accept that the learning tasks you have created are not infallible.

We create the learning tasks that we believe will lead to the desired student learning. But students differ—the tasks we assign may not work for all students and may certainly not be efficient in terms of time spent. When students are allowed to choose the tasks that work best for them and to determine their most efficient path to learning, and when grades reflect mastery of skills rather than consumption of content, students are less stressed.

The Lessons Continue

Both teachers and students need the human element of face-to-face learning. Teachers need to be able to read students’ level of understanding, sense their frustrations, and revel in their light-bulb moments. Students need to see and feel the nuances of our teaching and absorb our enthusiasm.  We realized during the pandemic that school is so much more than a physical place. Regardless of where and how we teach, we must prioritize school as a space where students are free to dream, to explore, to play, and to discover who they are, separate from the expectations and limitations of the outside world. Let’s continue to ride the waves of change to shape schools into the spaces students deserve.

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