Course: Modern World History
Department: Social Studies
Institution: Rootstown Local School District
Instructor: Mr. Christopher Morris
Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 98 9th/10th grade students
Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Google Classroom, digital textbook
Author Bio: Mr. Morris holds a 7-12 Integrated Social Studies certification earned after graduating from Cleveland State University in May 2017. He has been teaching Modern World History and upper-class social studies electives at Rootstown High School since the fall of 2017. He also coaches the high school Quiz Bowl team.
Teacher Efficacy and Asynchronous Teaching
The term teacher efficacy is probably not a new one for most educators. The work of John Hattie on functional strategies and their effect sizes on student performance indicates that collective teacher efficacy has the highest effect size (Visible Learning, n.d.). As defined by online dictionaries, teacher efficacy, collective or otherwise, is an educator’s self-belief in their ability to promote, foster, and influence student performance (IGI Global, n.d.). Teachers are supposed to be promoters and influencers, breathing life into those embers of imagination seen in the eyes of a student who is gripped with whatever lesson, or topic, or person we might mention in our classrooms. These interactions with students, when we can see the awe in their expressions, read it in their written responses, and foster it encouraging their questions reinforces our self-belief that we can influence student performance by how and what we teach. Thus, student-teacher relationships become positive feedback loops that reinforce a core principle of teaching young minds. We find it easier as educators to be student promoters, influencers, and stewards of their ambitions in those countless face-to-face interactions we get in the classroom on a daily basis.
When we found ourselves faced with the prospect of long-term (read: till the end of the academic year) remote learning, the light of these student-teacher interactions faded somewhat. We surveyed students and parents, to get an idea of how many student households had access to devices, either an iPad or computer, at home. Students in my district are not supplied with their own devices, we are not one-to-one in terms of technology. The district offered device loans for parents whose children needed one. Chromebook carts and computer labs were stripped so that as many students as possible who needed a device could have one. As some students did not have on-demand access to their devices at home, all instruction had to be made accessible at any time, hence the decision to use asynchronous learning methods. Asynchronous learning as a means to deliver remote, digital instruction during a time of pandemic created a unique set of circumstances that hampered teacher efficacy, or at least the self-belief in my effectiveness as an educator.
In my classroom, I rely on simulations and role-playing activities to help students connect with the perspectives of historical actors, be they nations or individuals. This approach is especially useful in conveying the relationship between the Soviet Union, the United States, and the rest of the world during the period of the Cold War. Usually, students have the ability to inhabit the role of an actor, researching their motivations, ambitions, and perspective on a given topic and interacting with classmates playing different characters to resolve international disputes and other questions related to the topic of investigation. Students have expressed how much fun these activities are and their reactions feed into the positive feedback loop related to teacher efficacy.
Given the realities of remote learning and the constraints of asynchronous learning, simulations and role-playing activities had to be shelved. In their stead, and to ensure at least a modicum of consistency, much of the background information for the Cold War was delivered via textbook readings and answering related questions. This was supplemented by recorded videos of myself explaining some of the more nuanced concepts and terms to flesh out their understanding. Lessons were also reinforced with digital resources like Crash Course World History videos and documentary clips.
I used Google Classroom and Google Meet as the platform for our digital education largely because Rootstown is a Google school district, every student receives a Google account upon enrolling. Students, therefore, have a modicum of experience using the platform and have the skills necessary to at least navigate Google Classroom pages and figure out how to join a Google Meet. Some staff used Zoom, however, the ease of use and less daunting learning curve made Google the go-to digital platform. Google Classroom allows for easy work assignment and student submission. Documents can be uploaded to assignments that automatically create copies for every student, negating the need for 98 students to share their work with you and clog your inbox with notifications. The platform keeps student work organized and allows for timely feedback that, if students have the Classroom app on their smartphone, can be pushed to their phones and students can see it as soon as you post it. When it comes to fostering student potential and teacher efficacy, this kind of immediate feedback is absolutely necessary especially during a time of remote learning.
Student Feedback and Teacher Reflections
Throughout the final ten weeks of the year, the messages I received from students on the feedback I left them was reaffirming. On several occasions, students were able to have smaller conversations about their work and add a portion of the teacher-student interaction they would have gotten in the classroom. The issue, however, is the inconsistency in this method of student feedback, teacher-student interaction, and the inherent shortcomings of teaching digitally in an environment where not every student shares the same level of access to technology. We were also encouraged to hold virtual office hours for at least one hour every day to allow parents and students to check-in with comments, questions, and concerns.
Virtual office hours have a great deal of potential in feeding teacher efficacy and increasing student engagement, however, teacher execution and student buy-in are paramount in tapping into that potential. My experience with office hours is decidedly mixed, as I have many positive accounts with individual students using office hours as a sounding board for questions with projects and assignments, as well as general check-ins regarding our broader, pandemic situation. These kinds of conversations are vital to fostering student growth and connecting with students in meaningful ways. However, the total number of students who took advantage of office hours was incredibly low. Out of 98 students, 12 students attended at least one office hour session and only three attended two or more sessions. Of the three who attended more than two sessions, two were on an IEP and were usually prompted to join by the intervention specialist, while the third attended at least once a week because they are passionate about school in general and history in particular. To be clear, office hours were not mandatory for students to attend, but rather a tool at their disposal should they need questions answered. When students showed up to office hours, the interactions were always positive with them asking pertinent questions. The student who checked in every week often brought questions beyond the scope of the material for the week and usually included questions about the current state of the world and any news of future developments. These conversations I looked forward to the most throughout the weeks of remote learning. Increasing real time student engagement would be of paramount importance should any sort of remote learning continue in the Fall of 2020. However, the obstacles to that goal are many for a district short on technological resources.
I have already listed many of the reasons why active, real time engagement with students was difficult during the last ten weeks of instruction, so I will only briefly list them again along with possible solutions or mitigation of their effects. Access to technology is not a problem easily solved given budgetary constraints of the district, however, some changes could be made to offset the effects of students not being able to log on until hours outside the normal school day. From the very beginning, I reminded students to send questions via email and I strove to respond to those in as timely a fashion as I could. Rolling those questions into a recorded video segment that students could access on their own time might help overcome some of their frustrations and misconceptions with material and assignment expectations. I would record a video for each week that detailed the assignments and explained any trouble spots I thought students might encounter. Structuring these videos to include more pointed student-generated questions would probably increase their effectiveness, and if students were able to get more out of them, they might be more inclined to reach out with more concerns and comments. Given the experiences of remote, asynchronous learning over the last ten or so weeks of the spring semester, the one aspect that needs to be reinforced should we find ourselves in a remote or hybrid situation in the future is better structure, expectations, and opportunities for student-teacher interactions, whether in real time or recorded.
Getting people to buy-in to any new system or structural change is a difficult and sometimes time consuming process. Having that new system forced suddenly upon you by outside forces compounds these growing pains. However, with these new systems and structural changes, the opportunity for reflection, iteration, adaptation, and growth abound. Part of this growth process I undertook by surveying my students roughly halfway through the fourth nine week grading period. I asked their opinions on how remote learning was going, did they feel they were getting everything they needed, and what, if any, suggestions did they have to improve the process going forward. 85 percent of students responded to the questionnaire. On average, students rated their overall experience with digital learning at a six or lower on a ten-point scale with ten being the best. I also asked students the following question about office hours:
“Have you taken advantage of Mr. Morris’s office hours? If not, why not? If yes, did you find it helpful? (please explain your response)”
Students’ responses to this question generally took on the same idea, that they were not taking advantage of office hours because they worked on school assignments outside of normal school hours. Some mentioned they worked during the day and had to focus on school at night, or could not access the family computer until after their parents or siblings had finished their work first. Others expressed frustration about not being able to get immediate feedback because they were working at odd hours, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 am. While it would be difficult to advocate for teachers to be available at all hours of the day, some kind of feedback system or schedule would benefit teachers and students alike.
Some students responded they felt they did not need help with assignments, and their work largely bore this out. However, when compared to the level of education and how they learn, in-class work with a teacher present to answer questions or prepare more interactive lessons leads to better learning and more in-depth understanding of often complex historical and social concepts. Finding ways to adapt that in-depth learning while students are working from home requires looking at different tools, while at the same time dealing with the realities of many of our families lacking access to technology and high-speed internet. I plan to use recording tools like Screencastify to put together lessons and show students how to use digital resources and virtual museum tours (if applicable to the content area) would take students beyond texts and reinforce learning. Small-group Google Meets with a specific focus communicated ahead of time to foster student engagement, weekly check-ins (done via email) with students to assess their concerns and answer those questions in recorded videos would help students feel like they are a part of the learning process. These tools would help increase or sustain teacher-efficacy using asynchronous learning methods and maintain a high level of instruction and rigor.
IGI Global, n.d. “What is Teacher Efficacy?” Accessed June 10, 2020. https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/increasing-teacher-efficacy-through-rural-partnerships/63565
Illuminate Education, n.d. “The “Effect Size” in Educational Research: What is it & How to use it?” Accessed July 9, 2020. https://www.illuminateed.com/blog/2017/06/effect-size-educational-research-use/
Visible Learning, n.d. “Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement.” Accessed June 15, 2020. https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/