3 practical ideas to make blended learning work in your classroom

Watercolor illustration of separated instructional groups

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.” – Thomas A. Edison

Creating a set of practical ideas begins with gathering a lot of ideas. Fortunately, ideas about blended learning are abundant—with one of the first being focused on feedback. In the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman offered the first long-distance education course focused on shorthand. Students received tasks, via postcards. After completing the tasks, they returned the postcards to be graded and corrected (Pappas, 2015).

About 125 years later, computer-based training has lessened the need for paper-based materials and face-to-face interaction. Paper reduction is always a practical idea, but moving away from human interaction brings its own set of impracticalities, such as losing opportunities for conversations and personalized feedback.

Forty years ago, televised training ushered in another practical idea: keeping learners engaged. However, to turn these ideas into great, practical ideas, we explore three elements that make blended learning work: 1) focus on the learning, 2) monitor student engagement, and 3) insist on actionable feedback.

Focus on the learning

Learning is best realized when students know exactly what they are expected to learn and how they can demonstrate what they have learned (Chappuis, 2012; Hattie, 2012; Stiggins, 2014; Wiliam, 2011). In a practical blended model, teachers take great care to keep the learning target visible. This model is about more than posting the standard or objective in the classroom. The target is visible on resources used during instruction, audible during instruction and modeling, and tangible as students review authentic work aimed at that target.

For an example, let’s look at Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®. Teachers make the target visible and audible during explicit instruction as they explain and model how to meet the target, which in this example is identifying the main idea and two supporting details. Following explicit instruction, students work with examples either from online sources or previous students’ work with this same learning target (with all identifying information removed), which makes the target tangible. As students review examples, they embed ideas related to the main idea and supporting details. To bring greater focus, the teacher then assigns a variety of additional articles at students’ reading levels so they can practice finding the main idea and supporting details on their own. Focusing on the learning—when it includes explicit instruction, modeling, and reviewing authentic samples of students’ work—is a practical idea for making blended learning work in your classroom.

Monitor student engagement

I found it intriguing that television was connected to engagement. Perhaps in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it seems that too much TV might have an unintended, negative consequence on student engagement. Usher in online engagement with short, targeted videos and opportunities for classroom interaction—that’s blended learning. Many are familiar with Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) and the idea of targeted tutorials with accompanying practice. In addition, teachers have identified an abundance of online, interactive mathematics support sites. For example, explore www.hippocampus.org, which is part of the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC). Courses are designed around online engagement and teacher–student face-to-face interactions. Regardless of students’ learning preferences or the quality of the online content, engagement remains a critical component of learning. Watching a video is one level of engagement, while participating in an online game or simulation is another. Conversations about what students are watching and simulating takes engagement to a deeper level. As Vygotsky (1978) writes, learning is a social enterprise mediated by language; speech is the social means of thought. Part of engagement is acquiring vocabulary to express what you are learning. Monitoring engagement by talking to students and gauging their development of content-specific vocabulary is another practical idea for blended learning.

Insist on actionable feedback

Some digital resources provide feedback in the form of visual or auditory congratulations. At that point, the learning is done. Other resources mark completion of a level and move the student forward to the next level. The learning continues. Actionable feedback is multi-dimensional, requiring student and teacher involvement. The key is remembering that when the feedback is definitive, as in a grade, that bit of learning stops. When the feedback is targeted and aimed at moving to the next level, that bit of learning continues.

Students should use the target to review their work. What is the target? Where did I start? Where am I today? How much further do I need to go? How can I get there? In conversations with the teacher, each student’s question becomes an action item and the learning continues. Ongoing learning via student feedback is another practical idea for blended learning.

Great, practical ideas

Like Edison, you pondered lots of ideas as you implemented blended learning. Please share your greatest, most practical ideas for blended learning in the comments below!

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References

Chappuis, J. (2012). How am I doing? Educational Leadership. 70(1), 36–41. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/%C2%A3How-Am-I-Doing%C2%A2%C2%A3.aspx
Hattie, J. (2014). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Maxwell, C. (2016). What blended learning is—and isn’t. Retrieved from http://www.blendedlearning.org/what-blended-learning-is-and-isnt
Pappas, C. (2015). The history of blended learning. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/history-of-blended-learning
Reed, K. (2014). Student-centered learning: How to implement a blended learning program. Retrieved from https://www.knewton.com/resources/blog/ed-tech/blended-learning
Stiggins, R. (2014). Revolutionize assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.

44 Comments

  1. LeeAnn says:

    I don’t think I fully understand the actionable feedback. I can see with AR the goal would be increasing reading level and that higher and higher levels are the carrots to attain. How does this translate into a social studies unit on the Texas Revolution?

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for your question, LeeAnn. Actionable feedback is conversation, checking in, and commenting on work not yet complete. Once a grade is assigned, the work is done and there is no more action to be taken. Dylan Wiliam and Rick Stiggins write about this and even offer great classroom suggestions. For your unit on the Texas Revolution, you’d begin with making the learning expectations clear to students by allowing them to review and comment on students’ work (from previous years with all identifying information removed). This is actionable because the students are digging in to find what makes one paper or project more intriguing than another. They develop their own set of success criteria. Often teachers will offer baseline criteria and the students add to that. Then as your students begin work on the unit, you have conversations with them and provide comments (rather than grades or rating points) on their work. Have them work on a small piece; then engage them in conversation before the move to the next piece. The idea to remember is when students see a grade, they are likely to check out of the project. When you’re ready for them to do that and move forward to the next unit, then you don’t need to continue engagement in actionable feedback; they are ready for summative (it’s over) feedback. I encourage to read more from Wiliam and Stiggins. Fascinating work by brilliant men who are dedicated to education.

    • Shanell Lee says:

      Great article!

  2. Lloyd Goldberg says:

    I love the efficiency and accountability of blended learning practices.

  3. Corey Conant says:

    It reminds me of the “too much of a good thing” lesson. Short and targeted videos have been very effective in my classroom.

  4. Elizabeth Quezada says:

    In first grade, we have been exploring Google Classroom this year. Students can go to our classroom online and click on a Hyperdoc which then has different options for them to choose. They read books, watch videos, and then write about what they learned. FInally, they turn it in online. I can give feedback immediately and have them change what is needed. It is also differentiated in that their requirements are modified depending on their learning ability.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Elizabeth! I have much more to learn about Google Classroom, but even more to learn about your approach.

  5. Laura Quiroz says:

    Great to know! Students are successful when they have a target goal and are guided to meet it.

  6. Rita Platt says:

    I learned that when students are working on the computer, it is not an extra planning time for me. I need to be monitoring and helping and sometimes pulling small groups for mini-lessons.

  7. Lisa Capon says:

    Very interesting ideas.

  8. P R says:

    I.) I write each subject on the whiteboard. Next, the topic of the lesson is listed. Finally, the assigned work is listed. Here are two examples:
    Math—–1. Take notes on measurements in standard and metric forms in the interactive math notebooks. 2. Discuss the notes as they are written down and complete sample problems. 3. Guided instruction of review sheet #`1. 4. Independent work on second review sheet.
    Reading—-1. Listen to audio book recording of Misty of Chincoteague. 2. Listening assignment is to listen for plot elements. 3. Discussion of plot. 4. Complete graphic organizer of plot events.

    2) Individual conferencing with students on their progress reports on AR and AM.
    1. Show the student their personal report. 2. Ask the student to point out their strengths. 3. Ask the student to point out their weaknesses. 4. Have student to choose a skill for extra practice or exercise practice( In Math). 4. Have student to point out his/her reading goals which they are close to meeting and praise them. 5. Have student point out his/her goals which are far from being met and ask them what they think they could do to be able to meet that goal.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      This is exciting to read, P.R. I hope you are socializing this because many teachers will benefit. The blending of content access points (whiteboard, listening, notes, discussion) partnered with the conferencing ideas make this a practical and effective model.

  9. Jody S. says:

    Great article full of useful information. Thank you.

  10. Heidi says:

    I took a few blended learning classes so I’ll be interested to incorporate this.

  11. Karen says:

    We are going towards blended learning in our school; students were issued Chromebooks to assist with online math. I will say I tend to get more work that is supposed to be submitted digitally than if the work is supposed to be physically handed in, but we run into the same “not reading directions” problem either way.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Great insight, Karen. Students are students, even when working digitally. They need teachers to guide them.

  12. Jamye says:

    This is very interesting!

  13. Alecia Walkuski says:

    My most successful attempt at blended learning involved using google slides for students to present their favorite book. Students worked in groups of three to design 3 slides for their favorite book(s). Students had to interact online and provide feedback to each other to create a great product.

  14. Pam Everitt says:

    Great ideas! Thank you!

  15. Sheila Shaffer says:

    One of the major concerns I have as a teacher about to retire is the new generation of teachers “reliance” on on-line materials. When I had a discussion with a colleague about how we would want our students spending “free” class time, he talked about them going on-line (which I see as more of the same) to do something in isolation while I talked about having students collaborate on a problem or learning together how to play a math game (even if it means they develop their own rules). There is a case of a school system in VA that went to all on-line instruction; discourse was virtually eliminated in the classrooms. When college recruiters came, they remarked that the students didn’t seem to know how to look an adult in the eye, nor how to carry on a conversation with an adult. Needless to say, the school system greatly reduced the on-line time students were spending, brought back student/student and student/teacher interactions in the classroom. There has to be a balance!

    While our elementary schools have gone to a standards-based report card (indicates a students progress towards meeting the standards), our secondary schools are still using averages. Standards-based keeps the learning fluid and cumulative. Averages signal the end a quarter – and the end of learning of those topics/content.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Shelia, I apologize for the delay in this response. I’ve been looking for rooftops from which you can shout! Learning is a unique HUMAN and SOCIAL enterprise. The true role of technology is to support the teacher in acquiring and sorting through data and resources to get the greatest insight from both. Online information is abundant and brings tremendous value to teacher/student interactions. Simulations take students where they could not go (rainforests, desserts, the Serengeti). This level of access enriches classroom experiences. Further, it does encourage further student exploration. It does, however, hold the potential to shift the balance of power in the classroom. As long as we remember that learning in human and based on relationships, we find value in technology-supported instruction.

    • Cathy says:

      Sheila, I found your statement about students being unable to look adults in the eye or carry on a conversation to be quiet interesting and I guess a little disturbing.

  16. Sr. Stephanie Flynn says:

    great ideas.

  17. S.Bellomo says:

    Combining traditional classroom techniques, with technology and a student’s personal experience/work will make the material real and remembered.

  18. Kelly Barr says:

    Insightful article with lots of good points.

  19. Doug Abend says:

    Sounds a lot like Action Research for the classroom, only on a daily or weekly timeframe.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Doug. I hadn’t considered the Action Research connection. Intriguing!

  20. Jenny says:

    I am excited to incorporate some of this in my classroom. Good points!

  21. Renee Graham says:

    We have whole group viewing our Scholastic News for the week from the document camera. We view/discuss vocabulary and watch a 3-5 minute video on the issue. After the lesson, students view our Daily Agenda.
    Here is an example.
    1. Read your copy of this week’s Scholastic News
    2. Complete the questions on page 4
    3. Write a paragraph telling something you learned.
    4. Photograph the paragraph and record yourself reading it into your Seesaw digital portfolio
    5. Tonight, ask an adult to comment if you have access at home.

  22. Sarah Swanzy says:

    Insightful and intererst article

  23. David Keech says:

    What I took away from the article is that when we implemented Genius Hour into our 2 hour Math blocks this year, we provided students with a chance to explore topics of their own interest. We’ve learned students have different ways of presenting information on what they’ve learned to the class, and some have excelled with how they shared their information. Standout examples included identifying their guiding question right away(learning target) identified key information their classmates should know (and made sure their classmates were engaged with both the slideshow presentations and their questioning of others (monitor engagement) and then they ended with summaries/asked for questions/related to the real world (actionable feedback) I help students connect their presentations with all curricular areas and we discuss how everything connects.

  24. carly says:

    I’ve found the comments as interesting as the article. Until this year, I primarily used a hands-on approach to learning in math. Having only 4 computers for 22 students provided for little on-line time engagement. This year I have ten computers. At first I was excited that the students could use Renaissance and other individually-based learning sites. What I discovered was that many of my students started carelessly guessing at their a, b, c, or d choices. They weren’t using higher thinking level skills. So I changed how they got to use the computers. For math, Renaissance provides the option of generating identical exercises. By assigning students to skill-based groups, I get to hear and sometimes coach these interactions.

  25. Ami K. Edwards says:

    I really like the blended learning environment.

  26. Shanell Lee says:

    This is very interesting!

  27. Betty Morando says:

    My class was chosen to pilot a Chromebook lab this year, so I have been learning about Google Classroom, and how to incorporate this technology with my students. Your article was informative. I have used Khan Academy many times, but Hippocampus.org was new to me. I plan to explore that and see how I can incorporate it as well.

  28. J Miller says:

    My students have enjoyed participating in a core curriculum math lesson, then practicing those same skills in Accelerated Math and IXL. They are learning how to monitor their own progress. Too hard? They let me know and we work in a different group to strengthen those skills. Just right? They move onto other skills within the grade level or more challenging. Too easy? They find similar skills at a more challenge level. Differrentiation and individualized learning is easy and efficient, plus students are exposed to far more content/curriculum than I could offer a class of 26 students on my own without the tech tools.

  29. Cathy says:

    The section on feedback was especially important to me. Some days it is difficult for me to give students feedback on both AR and AM. This is an area where I need to be more consistent in.

  30. Jessica Spielman says:

    The middle school we feed in to is a 1:1 Chromebook school, so the more we can do in elementary the better prepared they will be when they get to 6th grade.

  31. Kada says:

    Great ideas but I need time to think about them over the summer.

  32. Katie says:

    I find that with blended learning it’s extremely important to hold my class accountable for their level, and their goals. Conferencing often has kept my students active in trying to reach their goals, and also lets them know that everything they do (or don’t do!) I am monitoring.

  33. Virginia Wiedenfeld says:

    I enjoyed how the author shared how to utilize blending with Renaissance!

  34. Shonte Grady says:

    Very informative!

  35. Chimere McRae says:

    I enjoyed learning the difference between feedback and actional feedback!

  36. Stacey Painter says:

    Great Article, thank you!