4 Ways Your Instruction Might Change with Actively Learn

Dr. Natalie Saaris
April 19, 2016

When assessing an educational software product, we often consider how it impacts student learning: what benefits will students reap as a result of using the platform? However, we often neglect how technology changes instruction. Teachers who introduce software in their classrooms are surprised to find that their teaching practices evolve in relation to what features the platform makes available to them and what insights the data from the software provides.

Digital reading is no exception to this rule. Adopting Actively Learn fundamentally changes how teachers scaffold material, how they present questions for their students, how they communicate with and provide feedback to students, and what they learn about their students’ reading habits. All this leads to a new way of interacting with the material you assign and with your students.

Of course, not every teacher will necessarily find his or her instruction transformed by Actively Learn. Many of the changes described here depend on how extensively the platform is used. So a teacher who only uses Actively Learn for occasional independent reading will experience fewer benefits than the teacher who has consistently adopted the platform for all class reading.

Nevertheless, we wanted to give you an idea of the potential impact that our platform could have for your instruction. Read on to learn how you could be teaching more effectively and engaging your students more deeply with Actively Learn.

1. With instruction embedded in the text, the focus of class time becomes discussion

Prior to adopting Actively Learn, teachers spend class time explaining concepts found in the text. Class time is their opportunity to clarify main ideas, ask questions about the material, and make connections between the text and other themes being studied. This is a natural result of the fact that students are on their own as they read: reading is to be done for homework, and instruction is introduced the following day.

Because Actively Learn enables teachers to embed explanatory content and questions directly in the text, teachers find that the focus of class time changes once they transition to digital reading. The points they had previously made while students were in class have already been presented in the reading. This means that class time is reallocated to a highly valuable activity: group discussion. Instead of hearing their own voice dominate class time, teachers hear the voices of students as they share their perspectives on the content, respond to in-text discussion threads, and follow up on the annotations provided for them in the margins. The instruction embedded in the text prepares students for discussion and serves as a jumping-off point for conversation.

Dr. Deborah March, an upper-school English teacher, describes how embedding media and hyperlinks in the text inspires conversation among her students: “Students can click on links to learn more and respond to notes with their own thoughts, so that my in-text guidance prompts active engagement instead of passive reception. It is no longer this asymmetrical imbalance of enthusiasm, with me lecturing excitedly to silent students who, at best, obediently write down what they hear. Instead, I’m thrilled to see my kids taking the cues and clues I leave for them in Actively Learn--and going in directions I sometimes couldn’t have anticipated.”

“I’m thrilled to see my kids taking the cues and clues I leave for them in Actively Learn—and going in directions I sometimes couldn’t have anticipated.”

— Dr. Deborah March

Students begin to take a greater role in shaping classroom discussion, which leads to increased engagement in the material and a more dynamic academic environment.

2. Instruction is informed and guided by student questions, comments, and performance data

When teaching with paper, teachers prepare for class not knowing what their students understood from their reading, which means that instruction is disconnected from what students need help with and what they are most interested in. The teacher’s lesson could be completely derailed because students did not comprehend what the teacher expected them to. The teacher also misses out on the potential to truly engage students by discussing what they found to be most compelling in the text.

Teachers who use Actively Learn, on the other hand, walk into class knowing what their students thought as they read. They’ve seen their students’ “I don’t understand” flags, their responses to questions, and their annotations. They’ve also seen where students concentrated their discussion threads and the conversations that have already begun prior to class. This information is a rich resource from which to draw when preparing for instruction. Some teachers discover that what they had planned on discussing was already obvious to students, while other parts of the text created confusion or debate.

“I have examples of students engaging in the text by having real time conversations, either in their head or with a peer that I was never privy to before,” describes Monica Witzke, an 8th grade ELA teacher. “I can see what they are thinking and then I can make a decision as a teacher… Do I need to jump in now to correct their misunderstanding? How much do I jump in?  Will they begin to correct themselves as they read further? This is ‘data driven’ instruction unlike what we have been able to do in the past.”   

“This is ‘data driven’ instruction unlike what we have been able to do in the past.”

— Monica Witzke

Looking at this more broadly, teachers who use Actively Learn on a regular basis can see data from their students’ performance and know which skills and content areas their students need help with. These teachers know, for example, that their students have a good grasp of character development but a poor record of performance on analysis of an argument. They can see that student comprehension is lagging in a particular unit relative to previous months. All this helps teachers cater their lessons to what students really need to work on, as opposed to throwing darts in the dark.

3. Teachers can differentiate instruction based on data

Differentiating instruction in a paper-based classroom is tricky. Teachers don’t want to publicly single out students who are struggling, and they may not have a good grasp of which students are struggling in the first place and what skills or content areas they need the most help with.

Teachers using Actively Learn, however, know what supports their students need. The data shows them which students are struggling and gives them actionable insights into the areas that students need help with. These teachers can then use extra help notes to give those particular students the support they need, while omitting it for those who don’t. This leads to more effective instruction that targets students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Dr. March describes the way she is able to address individual student challenges with Actively Learn: “When I talk to a struggling student after class, having his or her Actively Learn responses handy is almost always helpful. Many of my students who find the reading difficult offer unhelpfully vague descriptions of the problem, often out of shame and confusion. 'I didn’t get it.' 'It makes no sense.' It hurts to see my kids so frustrated, but their general complaints make it unlikely I’ll address the particular issue that’s keeping them from succeeding. Actively Learn offers a great starting point; we can look at specific low-scoring responses together and discuss what went wrong. Because I’m able to categorize questions by particular standards, we can also look at broader patterns: does the student struggle with main idea questions? Do 'meaning and evidence' questions trip him or her up? Having that data at my fingertips puts me in a great position to give my students the help they need.”

“Having that data at my fingertips puts me in a great position to give my students the help they need.”

— Dr. Deborah March

The conversation between the teacher, the student, and potentially the student’s parents becomes more targeted and effective when teachers know exactly where students struggle.

4. Teachers can ask higher-level questions

With paper-based texts, the teacher’s assessment is often geared to ensuring that students have done their reading and that they have attained a basic understanding of the material. This often manifests in lower-level questions that target recall and summary rather than analysis and critical thinking.

Actively Learn takes care of basic comprehension and task completion by monitoring student activity and allowing teachers to insert instruction in the margins. Teachers know that students are doing the work, and they’ve provided supports that ensure that students have understood the material. The purpose of assessment, then, is redefined to emphasize higher-level thinking. Instead of asking students to summarize what has happened in their reading, teachers can feel confident asking students to assess the author’s purpose or connect themes across different texts. Teachers are able to get to more rigorous questions much faster than they can with paper texts.

“I think the biggest thing that Actively Learn has done for me is really challenged me as a teacher to be better at asking questions,” explains Liz Jones, 7th grade Social Studies teacher. “It challenges me to give [my students] a meatier, higher depth of knowledge question that they can spend time on and think critically about. I feel like it’s taught me as a teacher to question better and to pull that critical thinking out of my students.”

“I feel like [Actively Learn] has taught me as a teacher to question better and to pull that critical thinking out of my students.”

— Liz Jones

These deeper questions enable your students to think more deeply, and for your discussions in class to be much richer. This is the sort of learning that we strive to facilitate, and that we hope you will also experience in your classroom when using Actively Learn.


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