Rising to the occasion: 4 lessons learned about virtual teaching during COVID-19

It’s been a year since schools nationwide closed in response to COVID-19, and the shift to virtual learning has been extremely difficult for both teachers and students. Before 2020, most teachers didn’t have a lot of experience with teaching in virtual settings, so they were forced to learn as they went. In many cases, they had to learn new tools and develop new strategies in real time, all while helping their students make the same transition.

Despite these challenges, many teachers found ways to succeed and thrive in their new environments—so we set out to learn more about what’s working well for them and what they’ve learned after a year of virtual learning. We surveyed educators and asked them about their experiences, and they gave us keen insights into their biggest wins, their hardest obstacles to overcome, and the unique advantages of having to pivot to virtual learning.

“Virtual teaching during a pandemic: Lessons learned” covers the four key findings from our educator survey in detail. Here’s a summary.

1. Many educators are rising to the challenges of virtual learning by focusing on finding new, creative solutions to best support student learning.

Notably, there was no single tool or practice that stood out as ideal for all students; rather, two key messages emerged: Teachers took strength from their own resilience as they’ve found new ways to build teaching momentum, and they’ve been propelled by a growth mindset and willingness to try new things. Teachers told us that they miss teaching in person and the emotional energy that comes from their interactions with students. Those who felt most successful have worked to find new ways to foster similar or analogous interactions virtually. Teachers also shared with us that their schools and districts are supporting their willingness to try new approaches and solutions by loosening local requirements—so they’re playing a stronger role in planning what to teach and assess in their classrooms. That’s had positive outcomes for both student and teacher morale.

2. Many educators are finding a silver lining: They can use digital tools and virtual learning environments to have a positive impact on teaching and learning in unexpected ways.

The overwhelming majority of teachers we surveyed agreed on one key thing—the COVID-19 pandemic changed their mindset around using digital tools for learning. They described how they quickly went from using technology as a way to replicate in-person learning to using it to create learning opportunities that can only happen in virtual environments. By leveraging an ecosystem of different tools to organize teaching and learning, engage students, check for understanding, communicate with students and families, and address diverse learning needs, many teachers are seeing new benefits they might not have realized so easily in a physical classroom. In fact, the majority of educators are more comfortable with digital tools now compared with before the pandemic and anticipate that they will use the ones they’ve grown to value more frequently when consistent face-to-face learning is possible again.

3. Most educators are informally advancing their digital literacy skills by using district-provided resources or examples from their professional learning.

In our survey, teachers told us that, rather than finding their own tools, they typically rely on the applications and systems their districts provide—and that they spend a lot of time learning how to make the best use of them. That can create a burden, and simultaneously, they’ve discovered an opportunity to support one another: As they share and adapt their most effective techniques, they’re able to try new teaching strategies in their own virtual classrooms. In the same way that we’ve seen teacher resilience and adaptability create momentum for action, shared teaching experiences have created new peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

4. Educators are reconsidering how they approach and implement assessment in the context of virtual learning.

Our teacher respondents were clear: Assessment has been particularly difficult but also especially important in the context of the pandemic and virtual learning. While interim assessments have been helpful to spotlight where their students are and to identify unfinished learning, teachers have highlighted the even greater need for formative assessment practices. They’ve expressed a desire to have actionable data so they can respond to their students and differentiate instruction. They told us that in the context of virtual learning, they’re relying on formative assessment practices because they’re the most effective way to evaluate student learning and social-emotional well-being at any given time. Assessment data has also been key for helping students set learning goals that are clear and aligned with both student needs and local standards.

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Across all the educators we surveyed, we saw a wide variety of responses that reflect the different experiences educators are having. Yet one thing was clear from all of our respondents: They’re committed to their students, and they’re finding ways to make learning happen, even in the most challenging situations. To learn about our findings in more detail, download “Virtual teaching during a pandemic: Lessons learned.”

For additional information on professional learning opportunities through NWEA, read “Why investing in professional learning is essential for educators—and students, too” and “Classroom ready: Be there for your teachers with assessment support, curriculum connections, and professional learning.”

Steve Underwood, manager on the Professional Learning Design team at NWEA, contributed to this post.

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