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Problems of Practice

How can I help students build a strong foundation for self-direction in remote learning?

Key Takeaways

In order to successfully implement remote learning, educators should:

  • Build students’ independent learning skills
  • Find ways to work in partnership with families
  • Foster supports for the whole child
Student smiles at laptop screen, waving her hand, wearing earphones

What is the problem?

Learning from home puts significantly more control in the hands of learners as they make decisions about how and how much to engage in instruction. Further, given disruptions and stressors created by COVID-19, students are likely navigating challenges beyond academics as they “learn how to learn” from home. Educators need to deeply think through these foundational factors in order to help students be successful.

(Note: This is one segment of a three-part series on driving quality in remote learning.)

Why is it important?

A student’s ability to engage in any remote instructional experience, no matter how well designed, is affected by their resources, learning environment, and state of wellbeing. Their ability to self-direct their learning (that is, to take initiative, set goals, identify and choose the right resources, strategies, and supports, and monitor their progress) is critical to navigating these factors outside of school.

The research says...

TLA’s review of the available research suggests that creating a foundation for self-directed learning, offering supports that foster the development of remote learning skills and readiness, and paying particular attention to students’ comprehensive needs given the ongoing pandemic is essential to engagement in quality instruction.

  • “Students [learning remotely] need to make decisions about and exercise control over their learning activities in terms of pace, depth, coverage of the content, type of media accessed, and time spent on studying. Thus, the dimension of learner control also becomes an important part of students’ readiness.” (Stansfield, McLellan, & Connolly, 2004)
  • “Parents can support their children by encouraging them to set goals, plan, and manage their time, effort, and emotions. This type of support can help children to regulate their own learning and will often be more valuable than direct help with homework tasks.” (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018)
  • “Because the brain is malleable and context-sensitive, educators can transform students’ lives by designing learning environments that nurture their skills and talent, buffer against and alleviate stress and trauma, and unleash potential.” (Cantor and Gomperts, 2020)

How: Solution

As educators and leaders, our challenge is to figure out how to effectively deliver on the opportunity of remote learning. To do this, we must design and implement a foundation for remote instruction that optimizes the benefits students experience through working at home and mitigates any potential risks. The following sections will map out three major support areas needed when building a foundation for self-directed learning and quality remote learning as a whole, as well as action points for student-facing educators. (Interested in leadership actions? Check out this guide.)


Help students build independent learning skills

Building students’ skills for learning at home is a key component for successful implementation. Remote learning, whether synchronous or asynchronous, relies on learners to exert greater self-regulation and direction. Doing this requires practice and supports across different contexts to help students:

  • Understand their own needs
  • Establish and monitor progress towards goals
  • Identify resources (human and otherwise!) for learning
  • Choose appropriate and effective strategies that help them achieve goals

Reflect: Think about your current instruction, strategies, and routines around independent work. Ask yourself:

  1. What are my current expectations around independent learning?
  2. What are some challenges (academic and non-academic) that my students and I are facing?
  3. How can I collaborate with families to work through these challenges?
  4. How often are students being asked to work asynchronously and synchronously? How do supports look different within each modality?

Identify Action Points: Based on your current goals and context, begin setting up ways for students to start building their skills to become strong independent workers. Strategies to consider include:

  • Setting and modeling clear expectations and norms for engagement and communication. Help students understand what learning from home involves as well as ideas about how to:
    • Set up a good workspace
    • Organize a daily schedule to manage time and tasks effectively
    • Identify where to look for tasks, when they are due, and what they should look like
  • Providing students with concrete strategies for help-seeking. Students need to be aware of when and how they can get help.
    • Help-seeking might need to look different based on the modality of instruction; what might work in a synchronous setting (e.g., raising a “hand” in a video call) won’t work when students are working independently.
    • Students might not be aware of the different resources beyond you that they can draw on for help. Making these resources (e.g., online tools, help videos, physical materials, peers, other instructors, and parents) explicit can widen their range of support.
    • Example strategy: 3 Before Me - Students check with three different people before reaching out to the teacher in order to build problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
  • Encouraging self-reflection and goal-setting. Students need to play an active role in staying on task; building this practice is a skill. Support this by modeling and offering tools for setting intentions and reflecting on how well learning is going – and why.
    • It can be helpful to specifically identify explicit points in time when this activity can occur (e.g., during the morning, during or after a lesson).
    • Example strategy: Setting SMART Goals enables students to both set goals and identify how to achieve them.

This process will take time, partnership, and considerable “spiraling back” but will return significant dividends down the road.

Resources: Explore the additional resources below about specific ways to help students build these skills within a remote environment.

TLA's One Thing for Teachers series also provides support, insights, and resources to help educators implement quality remote learning.


Engage families and guardians as learning partners

Parents and members of the household can become critical supports for learning. They may not, however, actually know the best way to offer help or reach out when support is needed. That is why it is so important to build structures and strategies that are focused on not only engaging families and guardians but opening up multiple lines of communication to enable collaboration and partnership throughout the entire remote learning experience.

Reflect: Think about your current strategies for engaging families and guardians and ask yourself:

  1. How is it currently going?
  2. What challenges have you faced?
  3. What approaches have worked and why?
  4. What is your goal when building partnerships with families and guardians?

Identify Action Points: Based on your current goals and context, you can begin to engage families and guardians as learning partners in multiple ways. Strategies to consider include:

  • Creating systems to share important information. When deciding how families will receive important updates it is important to:
    • Communicate through multiple formats
    • Keep parents up-to-date, whether through weekly email blasts or even group texts
    • Leverage your school’s social media platform to push out important messages and reminders that affect the entire school or district
    • Example strategy: If you use Google Classroom, you can share weekly guardian summaries of student work straight from there. These emails are automated by Google Classroom and can include updates on class activities, upcoming work, and whether students are missing assignments. Share this video with guardians to help them get set up to receive these emails.
  • Offering opportunities for bi-directional, shared dialogue. When gathering information from parents and providing them with your insights to create aligned goals and better understand the needs of your students, make sure you:
    • Provide families with an easy way to contact you when needed
    • Hold parent-teacher conferences as well as virtual home visits to check in with families on a personal level
    • Offer opportunities for parents to provide feedback around content, communication, and any additional concerns
    • Example strategy: Family-School Engagement in the Time of Coronavirus maps out concrete steps to take when hosting a virtual or non-virtual home visit.
  • Providing targeted resources to help support continued learning at home. When sharing helpful resources with families to provide guidance around learning at home, it is important to think about quality – not quantity. You have likely been met with a firehose of resources, and so have families. It is sometimes difficult to narrow down the resources that are high-quality, actionable, and easy to use, so make sure whatever you share is:
    • Aligned to a goal, content, or a specific interest for students
    • Vetted and high-quality, both from an ease of use and content perspective
    • Engaging and informative
    • Example strategy: Wide Open School houses a variety of activities and guidance categorized by age groups. There are several activities that families can engage in with their students as well as a section on family services.

Resources: Explore the resources and strategies below to learn more about the specific ways to engage families remotely.

Foster whole-child supports

The last, but certainly not least, piece of the puzzle is acknowledging that students’ ability to engage in academics is affected and supported by non-academic factors, such as a sense of safety, relationships, and their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Powerful academic teaching and learning require support across other domains of student learning and development. This has always been true, but is even more relevant given school closures and the ongoing pandemic. Teachers can engage and offer supports that meet these “whole-child” needs. The CZI Comprehensive Student Development Framework maps out key areas to think about when building supports for the whole student.

Reflect: Thinking about how to support the whole child might feel overwhelming, but there are simple ways teachers can foster learning across domains and build an environment that is conducive to development. Reflect on your current instruction and strategies around whole-child supports by asking yourself:

  1. How might I better understand student learning and needs in domains beyond academics?
  2. Where can I add aspects of whole-child support into my daily instructional design?
  3. Where might I add additional opportunities for support and/or connection?
  4. How might I connect students to external resources when needed?

Identify Action Points: Below are some example strategies around each of the domains to facilitate reflection on potential opportunities to bring whole-child support into your remote classroom. When looking at these strategies, consider how you might implement or modify them to meet your students’ needs and leverage local resources.

  • Domain: Mental Health
  • Example Practices:
    • Ask students and families about wellbeing (via questionnaire/survey) to gain a better understanding of their current mental state, possible trauma, and additional supports needed to ensure they are able to engage.
    • Familiarize yourself with the community and school supports available to your students and families who may be going through a difficult time.
    • Offer students opportunities to take solo time (e.g., take a walk, turn off video, get a snack) when feeling overstimulated, frustrated, or disengaged.
  • Domain: Social and Emotional Development
  • Example Practices:
    • Provide calming, centering strategies at the beginning of a lesson to help students focus and take time for themselves before jumping into content.
    • Ask students to do quick emotional check-ins by sharing an emoji that represents their feelings and/or rate themselves as red, yellow, or green when gauging their current emotional state.
    • Have students keep a journal about their feelings and prompt them to investigate how those emotions influence their behaviors when negative behaviors arise.
  • Domain: Identity Development
  • Example Practices:
    • Explore culturally relevant materials and activities so that you can consistently build them into instruction.
    • Offer opportunities for self-reflection and dialogue around the intersection of identity and content.
  • Domain: Academic Development
  • Example Practices:
    • Engage in one-on-one advising to develop strategies to meet students’ specific goals and the steps to reach them.
    • Create options around how to access content by offering various playlists that enable students to engage with videos, readings, small-group discussions, adaptive software, and more.
  • Domain: Cognitive Development
  • Example Practices:
    • Proactively ask about or offer necessary accommodations (rather than expecting students or parents to do so).
    • Work closely with your school’s special education team to identify and respond to needs.
  • Domain: Physical Health
  • Example Practices:
    • Encourage “brain breaks” during synchronous learning time to allow for movement, silly activities, and the opportunity to walk away from the computer.
    • Develop a list of referral options and community supports for families around food services, “afterschool” programs, housing, financials, and other necessities to ensure families are given access to the resources they need.

    Take it further

    To learn more about these areas of support and to train others in the key components needed for successful remote learning, explore the additional resources below.

    Introduction to Remote Learning: This webinar slidedeck, created for and presented to principals and teachers around the country, is focused on the key components needed for the successful rollout of remote learning.

    Remote Learning Resource Guide: This resource guide accompanies the webinar listed above and contains playlists of various resources focused across three areas of support.

    All of these resources are free and open to use so feel free to share and adapt, with attribution to TLA! For questions, comments, and/or additional information, please email us at