Math teachers will likely need to shift teaching methods to help students thrive during distance learning. These ideas can start the process.

Now more than ever, teaching is a mix-and-match proposition as K–12 teachers have been pushed to come up with new ways to engage students during distance and hybrid learning. To leverage experience from teaching in traditional classrooms and meet the demands of online learning, educators are exploring different models, as well as ideas from outside their own disciplines.

Adam Lavallee, a math and economics teacher who was already teaching online classes before the pandemic hit, has thought long and hard about the opportunities presented by distance learning. As he explains in an article for Global Online Academy, teachers can work to create an “engaging online course with a robust community of learners that allows for student choice, timely feedback, content coverage, and student mastery.”

Lavallee recommends that teachers make several shifts when planning math instruction—most of which, with a little more tinkering, are relevant to other subjects. These shifts can be made gradually, so as not to be overwhelming: “Consider these shifts carefully and focus on the work most relevant to your students and your context,” Lavallee suggests.

Distance learning demands that teachers think very intentionally about which concepts students need to master. The reality is, mastery isn’t always what’s necessary for a particular concept; rather, observation or even just exposure may be sufficient to spark curiosity and wonder.

For Lavallee, matrices and the application of Cramer’s rule in Algebra 2 are non-essential and can be eliminated from the curriculum; completing the square to derive the quadratic equation is something students should observe; a few fundamental concepts within logarithms should be mastered; and functions are a must-have, to the point where students should both master and reflect on them.

If you shift content delivery to asynchronous instruction, as with self-made, on-demand videos, you free up synchronous time to collaborate with students and work through example problems and address misconceptions.

With on-demand instruction, Lavallee suggests, “The key strategy is a structure where students know their objectives, and they have the ability to check for their own understanding along the way.” With that strategy in place, you have created a basis for self-paced learning.

“Eliminate ‘homework,’ and just call it learning,” Lavallee suggests, adding that incentivizing students to practice working with concepts is what matters. You might also consider moving away from the easy-to-hard paradigm to make the practice more about reflecting. “Assess students not on their first draft of homework or their final product, but on their revisions and reflections,” he says. “Let them see the final solutions, then focus on, assess, and incentivize the revision process.”

There are also a host of apps that make math practice engaging and enjoyable, particularly for elementary and middle schoolers.

Lavallee notes that “teachers need to intentionally design for interaction in online formats and create structures that empower student voices.” One strategy for empowering student voice that Lavallee learned from a peer is to have students imagine that they have a partner who doesn’t understand a problem and then make a video explaining how to do it: The work of creating the video pushes students to deepen their understanding, and the teacher can use the videos for formative assessment. As a bonus, if any students are still struggling with the problem, their peers’ videos can be a valuable resource.

You can also infuse your instruction with assignments that rely on more complex collaborative work (say storyboarding and multimedia), and use online breakout rooms as a place for students to engage in meaningful math discussions among themselves or with you in order to build confidence in their voices and perspectives.

A three-fold approach to summative assessment works well online, Lavallee writes. Consider incorporating:

  • Automated assessments for conceptual understanding—e.g., a set of multiple choice questions that students can complete in 15 minutes;
  • Oral exams, where students take 5–10 minutes to walk you through a solution to a multistep problem; and
  • A culminating project for each unit—e.g., students choose and present an authentic, contextualized application.

With both oral exams and culminating projects, consider how student choice can further enrich your students’ experiences and understanding—that approach can make students more engaged and result in a deeper, more authentic understanding of the content.