So many to choose from! 3 tips for selecting high-quality, supplemental digital resources

It’s a familiar drill for many teachers: You’re prepping your plans for the week, thinking about how to approach your content and digging through all the resources your core program has to offer.

Based on recent formative assessments, you know you have a small group of students who will need scaffolding to access the content and a few students who have mastered the basics and are ready to dig in at a deeper level. Your core program lessons are fine, but the suggested support and enrichment activities either aren’t robust enough or don’t focus on what you know your students need. So, it’s off to the internet and down the rabbit hole of supplemental content. Suddenly an hour has passed (or maybe two or three) and you are still trying to find that “just right” resource for what your students need.

Been there, done that?

If this is all eerily familiar, you’re not alone. A 2016 EdNet Insights report found that, on average, teachers spend about seven hours per week searching for instructional resources and about five creating their own resources to supplement their core curriculum. That’s an incredible amount of time on top of lesson planning, reviewing student work, and actual teaching. And while quantity is not an issue—a recent report predicts that the supplemental instructional materials market will grow from $3.8 billion to $4.6 billion over the next four years—the quality of what’s out there remains a big question.

A 2019 study by the Fordham Institute focusing on supplemental materials for high school ELA found that the majority of the materials reviewed were either mediocre or very poor, were not cognitively challenging, had weak standards alignment, and offered little support for teaching diverse learners. With the shift to more rigorous college-and-career-ready standards, organizations such as EdReports, Achieve, and state DOEs have either developed rubrics or offered reviews of standard-aligned core curriculums.

Teachers spend about seven hours per week searching for instructional resources and about five creating their own resources to supplement their core curriculum.

Despite both research on the importance of high-quality, well-aligned materials and numerous surveys indicating that most teachers frequently use digital resources to supplement their core curriculum, resources for evaluating the quality and alignment of these supplemental digital resources are scarce. At NWEA, we recognize the challenge of identifying quality materials, so we’ve put together some tips to help teachers navigate the wide world of online supplemental content.

Start with your why

In 2016, WestEd conducted a series of focus groups to determine, among other things, why teachers use supplemental resources. They discovered three main reasons:

  1. Lack of engaging materials
  2. The need for more differentiation and more personalized learning
  3. Perceived gaps in core curriculum relative to standards and assessments

Being clear on your purpose for using a supplemental resource is critical. Searching for a lesson that explains key concepts in a different modality than your core program is very different from searching for an online product that will allow students to explore math in a real-world situation. Each purpose inspires a different set of questions, so let’s examine the “whys” in greater depth.

1. Increasing engagement: What does that really mean?

“Engagement” is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but what does it really mean?

When looking at online resources, it is easy to conflate engagement with gamification. While students may enjoy playing an educational game or app with unique characters, flashy graphics, and other bells and whistles, we need to examine how deeply engaged they are with the actual content we want them to learn.

Author David Sousa defines student engagement as “the amount of attention, interest, curiosity, and positive emotional connections that students have when they are learning.… It describes their willingness and desire to participate in their work and take genuine pleasure in accomplishing their learning goals.” When reviewing supplemental resources to increase student engagement, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are students engaged by the content and the learning objectives?
  • Does the content meet the needs of the individual student, whether through scaffolding, additional practice, or enrichment, so that they can feel both challenged and successful?
  • How much time is spent on the learning objectives vs. engaging with activities not supportive of the learning objectives? Exciting game elements that draw students into a task are great as long as they don’t distract from the learning objectives. When your students run eagerly to the computer, check that they are as deeply engaged in the content as they are in trying to get to the next level to buy a new hat for their avatar. If they are spending more time on the gaming elements than the content, the resource may not have as big an impact on learning.
  • Does the resource increase engagement by presenting the content in an authentic, novel way that spurs curiosity, or does it simply overlay “fun” elements on top of routine problems?
  • Does the resource support active learning in which students can make choices, ask questions, display their knowledge in varied ways, and/or interact meaningfully with others?

2. Making it personal

Many teachers in the WestEd focus groups said they seek supplemental material because they feel their core program doesn’t have sufficient resources for students either in need of extra support or those ready for enrichment. Although this is a common reason for differentiating, teachers also differentiate to accommodate students’ interests and learning styles.

The features you might look for in supplemental resources will vary depending on the specific reason for differentiating and may vary depending upon the subject. For example, when seeking resources for students ready for enrichment, look for resources that go deeper without necessarily moving students off-grade. Although there are cases where students are advanced enough that accelerating them off-grade is appropriate, this should not be the default approach. Here are some questions to consider when reviewing supplemental resources for students who need support in math and ELA.

Questions to ask when reviewing math resources

Does the resource:

  • Appropriately balance conceptual understanding, procedural skill, and application in a way that matches the standards?
  • Clearly explain key ideas and concepts, modeling them in multiple ways?
  • Provide ample practice with clear, actionable feedback​ and in-the-moment support?
  • Have frequent and cumulative reviews​?

Questions to ask when reviewing ELA resources

Does the resource:

  • Appropriately balance fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension in a way that matches the standards?
  • Place students primarily in on-grade text and provide scaffolds for accessing the text?
  • Increase students’ exposure to a variety of on-grade text complexities?
  • Increase students’ volume of reading?
  • Systemically and explicitly teach phonemic awareness and phonics if targeted toward either K–3 students or students working on foundational skills?

When reviewing resources to accommodate students’ interests and learning styles, you’ll want to ensure that the resource allows students to select from a variety of topics or real-world contexts, presents the content in a variety of modalities, and demonstrates their learning in different ways.

3. What gap are you really looking to close?

Clearly, there is a lot to think about when searching for supplemental digital resources. No matter your exact purpose for using these materials, here are several questions that will help you determine overall quality:

  • Do the activities and resources truly align to the intent of the standards? For example, a resource that consists mainly of rote skill drills does not align to a standard focused on conceptual understanding. This is critical and should be the first question when evaluating any resource.
  • Does direct instruction use a variety of examples and models, and do the practice components include unique, interesting, authentic, and diverse real-world contexts?
  • Does the content support higher-level thinking and connected learning? Although there are some cases where rote skills practice is appropriate, a lot of student-driven online programs get stuck in that space, with students jumping from skill to skill without understanding how they all connect. Ideally, apps and programs adapt to increase in difficulty and complexity as students demonstrate understanding.
  • Does the approach to learning and mode of interaction with the student empower the student by challenging them while giving them the support needed to be successful?

Need more help?

Finding worthy supplemental materials is a daunting task indeed. Here are five resources that can further help you evaluate and maximize supplemental digital resources:

  • Triple E Framework—Liz Kolb of the University of Michigan School of Education created a framework for evaluating technology tools and resources based on how they impact student engagement, enhance learning goals, and extend learning into the real world. This site includes rubrics, case studies, and instructional strategies for maximizing use of digital tools and resources.
  • Digital Promise Certification—Digital Promise uses a research-based framework to certify digital resources. Resources must submit evidence to earn a certification in research-based design or learner variability.
  • North Carolina’s Quality Review—This resource was published to support North Carolina’s Digital Learning Initiative. Although the quality review checklist and rubric mention North Carolina’s standards, they can be applied to any standard set.
  • Kickstart guide: Choosing teacher-approved supplemental digital learning tools—This NWEA resource looks at the “whys” and “hows” of selecting and using supplementary resources.
  • All eyes on math: Choosing learning tools teachers love—In this NWEA webinar, a panel of educators discuss why and how they choose digital supplemental math tools with a particular focus on equity.

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