Why remote learning takes new ways of thinking

Students and teachers “will have to be more mindful of how they think, not just what they think,” says U of A education expert who offers advice to make the shift easier.


Both students and teachers can get more out of online classes by asking themselves what they need to learn or teach, how they intend to do it and whether it's working for them as classes go on. (Photo: Getty Images)

As students log in to online classes this fall, they'll have to adjust their thinking caps in a new way, a University of Alberta education expert advises.

"People will have to be more mindful of how they think, not just what they think," said Greg Thomas, a Faculty of Education expert in metacognition-one's self-reflection on their thinking and learning processes.

The major shift to remote online learning means students, left largely on their own without in-person instruction and classrooms, will have to be more self-aware of the questions they're asking themselves as they navigate their lessons, Thomas said.

"Most of this self-communication happens without us being aware of it, like when you're making a grocery budget. You ask questions like, 'What are my absolute needs? Can I afford that ice cream?' But it's when we're faced with new situations, like online learning, that we might need to learn new ways to think to suit the new situation.

"Students don't have the immediacy of an instructor in front of them, so a lot of responsibility falls back on them to be more independent in what they do."

That means making the decision to actively monitor their own learning, he added.

"It's essential that students plan, monitor and evaluate their learning in all of their courses from the start. Have a daily or weekly routine to really study the material you're asked to consider-and throughout the term, not just at exam time. And pay careful attention to the instructions."

It also means being more conscious in thinking about whether they're getting what they need as they move through their studies, he said.

"They'll need to ask themselves questions like what they know about the course material already, should they revise what they know before starting with new stuff, how will they know it's making sense for them, and if they find themselves in trouble, how do they seek help and who from?

"Students have to be more in tune with these types of questions because of this change in moving from a structured to an unstructured learning environment."

Teachers can also help their online students by being mindful in their work, said Thomas, who was recently interviewed for a podcast on the topic.

"They should try to understand deeply what they want their students to learn and what thinking they want them to engage in, so they can learn it."

This means finding ways to develop and boost students' metacognition online through the use of words, diagrams, audio and video, said Thomas, who has compiled information on it.

As successful learners themselves, teachers can also share their own best practices with their students, he suggested.

"They can reflect on how they learned and how they handle their workloads. Students love to learn about this from their teachers and it makes them more human."

Teachers should also ask their students to reflect on how they approach tasks and whether their approaches are successful.

"We want the students to become more independent and less reliant on us as teachers. To do this they need to explore what works and what doesn't for them in remote and other environments."

Having carefully constructed course schedules that are shared with students also helps model to students the kind of organization they should engage in, Thomas said.

Parents can also help as their children study from home, by providing encouragement and emotional support, he added.

"This shift to remote learning is not easy for anyone. Parents need to be willing to ask, 'How's it going?' and be willing to listen. Sometimes that's all that's needed.

"Or they can ask what they can do to help. Then the student can help control what might be able to be done, and this helps them become more reflective, metacognitive and responsible for their learning progress. And they need to know they are cared about."