Digital or analog, remote or in-person: thinking matters

How effective online teaching plans can enhance student thinking and improve learning I 3 min read
Digital or analog, remote or in-person: thinking matters

Many of my teacher friends are moving to online instruction right now, and they are working really hard to try to figure out how to make teaching and learning online work well for students. I’ve seen dozens of articles about which online systems might work well and overall guides about online teaching and learning. I’m grateful that many organisations are producing these guides for teachers who are trying to make the transition quickly and effectively.

There is one 'bottom line' generalisation that might be useful during discussions of online teaching: thinking matters. There are different ways to express this idea and Daniel Willingham’s summary is one of my favourites: 

Memory is the residue of thought. 

Cognitive psychology research consistently shows that cognitive processes like deep processing (and related processes like effortful encoding, elaborative encoding, desirable difficulty, semantic encoding, etc.) are necessary for the kinds of long term, transferable learning we are all after. Teachers should set up learning situations that increase the chances students will do the kinds of thinking in working memory that will help move information and skills into long term memory so it can be recalled when needed.

So how do we do this in the context of online instruction? Daisy Christodoulou offers interesting advice in this blog post, but it’s easy to get lost in the blizzard of suggested websites and apps. If I was a classroom teacher right now, I would apply a few online tools to increase the chances students will do the cognitive work required to learn. Here are the tools and steps I would consider using. Please note the context I’m most familiar with is Google Classroom and that’s the tool I would use to 'push out' these kinds of learning experiences:

  1. I think my first step would be to take any existing presentation slides I have for upcoming lessons and put blank reflection slides in the presentation. I wrote about that idea here.
  2. I would create hyperdocs as a way for students to follow a series of 'learning content', 'explore' and 'try it on your own' steps. I like this Cult of Pedagogy blog post about hyperdocs. Well designed hyperdocs can help increase the chances students will do the thinking we need them to do, even when we can’t 'be' there.
  3. I would consider changing some of my presentation slides to the Peardeck or Nearpod format. These tools allow teachers to embed 'check for understanding' slides into existing presentation slides and quickly/easily see student thinking (and use that information to modify future teaching). Both Peardeck and Nearpod are probably more effective ways to accomplish the 'reflection thinking' idea I described in step 1 (but it will take more work).

Many other teachers are developing different and possibly better plans than these 3 steps. But I think every effective plan will all share one underlying characteristic: effective online teaching plans emphasise student thinking rather than compliance, amount of work completed, amount of time spent online, effective graphics/videos, effort, etc. 

As humans we learn what we think deeply about, and memory and learning are the residue of our thoughts, whether we are learning face to face or online.


Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2017) Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand. Retrieved from April, 2020

Christodoulou, D. (2020) Remote learning: why hasn’t it worked before and what can we do to change that? Retrieved from April, 2020

Gonzalez, J. (2017) How HyperDocs Can Transform Your Teaching. Retrieved from April, 2020

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don't students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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