Maximum impact: 3 ways to make the most of supplemental content

In my previous post, I dug into some of the reasons teachers turn to online supplemental content and discussed tips for selecting appropriate supplemental resources. In this post, I want to look at how to maximize student learning when using supplemental online content, particularly when there is less direct support from the teacher.

These may be programs like MAP® Accelerator™ or an NWEA Instructional Connections partner, all of which help students either explore content based on their own interests, follow a learning path, work on content assigned by their teacher, or some combination of those options. Such offerings are often used as learning-center or computer-lab activities and can allow teachers time to work with individual students or small groups.

While a high-quality program should be easy to use for both teachers and students, ease of use shouldn’t suggest a hands-off approach. By applying the same effective teaching strategies that you already use in your core instruction, you can ensure your students get the most out of their time in these programs.

Connection is key

The concept of schema is well known in education. At its simplest, schema describes how the brain organizes knowledge into connected ideas.

There is extensive research that supports the importance of building connections between new ideas and previously learned ones. In an article highlighting teaching strategies supported by cognitive science research and observations of master teachers, Barak Rosenshine stated that “When one’s knowledge on a particular topic is large and well connected, it is easier to learn new information and prior knowledge is more readily available for use.” The more robust a set of connections is, the less you need to rely on working memory, which in turn allows you to use working memory to both process new information and apply it to solve problems. The 2018 publication How People Learn II states it simply: “Facts that are placed into a rich structure are easier to remember than isolated or disconnected ones.”

You likely already support connected understanding with your core teaching practices. You do this when you revisit the idea of repeated addition before introducing the concept of multiplication, or when you have students read “The Things They Carried” in English class at the same time that they are studying the Vietnam War in social studies.

By applying the same effective teaching strategies that you already use in your core instruction, you can ensure your students get the most out of their time.

When sending students to work in online supplemental resources, it is just as important to keep connection in mind. Whether students are exploring content of their own choosing or following an assigned path, push them to make connections between what they are learning online and the topics in your core teaching.

Having students complete regular reflections on their independent work is a great way to do this. In addition to asking them to summarize or highlight key concepts in what they learned, ask questions that prompt connection-making. If students are using supplemental time to review or relearn previously taught precursor content, guide them to make the connections between that and the current unit of study. For example, if students are reviewing area concepts while learning about volume, ask them questions like:

  • How are area and volume alike? How are they different?
  • How can you use your understanding of area to find volume?
  • What other concepts or skills have you learned that seem connected to area and volume?

Asking questions and prompting students to compare and contrast ideas helps develop models of understanding, which, in turn, promotes both retention and the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations. It can also increase motivation. If supplemental work seems random and disconnected, it is more likely to feel like busy work, particularly when students do not have control over the topics being explored. Indeed, research examined in How People Learn II indicates that when students “engage in artificial, decontextualized tasks, they will develop coping strategies that make sense for those situations, but such strategies will simply amount to ‘doing school.’”

Mastering metacognition         

Another familiar concept that can be leveraged to increase the impact of supplemental content is metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to monitor and regulate your own cognitive processes and to consciously adapt your behavior.

While students need explicit guidance to develop these skills, the benefits of doing so are plentiful. Students who are aware of their mental processes can better recognize when they need more information and can determine if new information is consistent with or in contrast to previous learning. This type of deep thinking about a topic and its connection to prior knowledge helps build the schema discussed previously. The ability to self-regulate also helps students persist in working toward goals.

Practices that support metacognition can be easily connected to supplemental work. When students head off to the computer, be sure to send them with a journal. Get them in the habit of both recording questions that arise during the learning and answering questions that probe their own understanding of and engagement with the material.

Here are four types of questions that can support metacognitive thinking:

Questions about the content

These questions support connected learning:

  • Was this new material, or did you know some or all of it?
  • Do you have new questions based on the activities, readings, or problems?
  • What was the “muddiest” part of the learning?
  • Did the material remind you of anything you have learned or are learning?
  • What did you know or think about this topic before these activities? How has your understanding changed?

Questions about the presentation

These questions help students uncover their learning style:

  • Think about how the material was presented. What worked best for you? Why?
  • What parts of the activities, readings, or problems didn’t you like?
  • How would you have presented this topic to someone else?

Questions about the level

These questions help students self-assess and can also provide data on whether the student’s current topic or level of study is appropriate:

  • Were the activities, readings, or problems too easy, too challenging, or just right?
  • What was the hardest thing you had to do?

Questions about time and self-regulation

These questions help students think about their focus and may also indicate the need to either alter the length of each session or build in breaks:

  • Did you need more time or did the session seem too long?
  • Did you lose interest at any point? How did you reconnect to the material?

As you establish general routines and expectations for independent supplemental work, model thinking about these types of questions and define expectations for when and how students will answer them. You might start by focusing on different questions each week and eventually post a list of questions for students to select from as they reflect on their learning.

Better together

While it is quite common to have students work in pairs or small groups during core work, online supplemental work is typically done independently. This is because supplemental work is often used to differentiate and individualize learning for students and because most programs and apps are designed to track individual student progress.

However, a meta-analysis of research on the impact of small group vs. individual learning on technology shows that having students work in small groups, ideally pairs, has significantly more positive impact on achievement than working alone does. Pairing increases the use of appropriate learning strategies​ and student perseverance in terms of the number of tasks attempted. It also increases student success rates while decreasing the need for teacher support​. But how do you balance the need to individualize with the benefits of pairing?

Having students work in small groups, ideally pairs, has significantly more positive impact on achievement than working alone does.

While students need to complete tasks individually so they can level up and show their own progress, you can pair students who are working on the same or related content. Although they are each working on their own computer, you can establish “computer buddies” who sit adjacent to each other, help each other get unstuck when needed, and debrief after their learning session to discuss what they were each working on and how their topics relate to each other and to core work.

Depending upon the age of your students and how long your computer block is, you might want to build a break into the work session: students work individually for 8–10 minutes, pause for 5–6 minutes to discuss what they are learning and ask each other questions, then re-engage in their individual programs for another 8–10 minutes.

An interesting extension of pairing is peer teaching. Studies have shown that having students prepare to teach content to others has a short-term improvement on learning, and actually teaching the lesson has a long-term positive impact on learning. Preparing to teach and actually teaching others requires the student to practice retrieving information, organize and deepen their own thinking, and develop new models of understanding. It is also empowering, particularly for students who may have struggled in the past.

While peer teaching might not be an everyday practice, students reviewing previously learned materials could create and lead a short presentation to either a small group or the whole class both to support their own learning and to activate prior knowledge for other students. Students can also be assigned to teach materials to family and friends or create videos for a classroom library.

Worth the time

Online supplemental content can be a great resource for both students and teachers. And while it may be tempting to simply enroll students and let the program do the work, spending a little time upfront building routines to connect this work to the larger work of the classroom will reap greater rewards in terms of engagement with and retention of content.


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