All Articles Education Voice of the Educator What the pandemic taught me about student choice

What the pandemic taught me about student choice

An AP History teacher shares the lessons about alignment, mastery, and grace that have been proven to foster success in any learning environment.

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

What the pandemic taught me about student choice

Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

While the last year has certainly been challenging, I think my AP History students have fared pretty well. They have yet to see their scores on the AP Exam, but this year’s scores on unit tests showed an average improvement of about 40% over last year. I believe that at least some of this improvement is attributable to my commitment to empowering student choice. One of the key takeaways from teaching during the pandemic for me was students can be offered choice either virtually or face-to-face with incredible success.

Students are individuals with unique circumstances

One of the areas where I found the pandemic shaping my thoughts was in regard to my students’ homes and personal lives. I asked myself, “What is going on in that kid’s home? What is it like to learn from his or her home? How can I best meet their needs with limited resources and limited time?” I actually earned my bachelor’s degree entirely online, so I understand that sometimes the WiFi doesn’t work or a student turns their computer on and it wants to update. Things like that happen in the world we live in now, and I think it’s okay to give students a little extra grace in working around them.

As students joined my class, each from a different environment that may have been easier or harder to learn in, it just reinforced for me how important it is to acknowledge that students are individuals with unique circumstances, and that allowing them to make decisions about their own learning is central to their success.

Give students choices about how they learn

As I thought of the diverse environments my students logged into class from, it was clear that one choice they should be able to make was whether to turn on their cameras. I rarely knew what their home environment was like, and I certainly didn’t know how they felt about their peers looking into their homes through a computer screen. My graduate work in Educational Technology leadership taught me the value of choice in student centered work and is the hallmark of my educational philosophy.

Another challenge was the lack of nonverbal communication. In a classroom, I can look at a student’s posture and facial expressions to gauge if they’re struggling, tuned-out, or deeply focused on learning. When they aren’t in class face-to-face, it’s difficult to establish a connection with them.

I noticed that students turned their cameras on more often in smaller groups. If it was a one-on-one meeting, the camera was almost always on. That told me that they weren’t trying to avoid accountability, but just needed to feel more comfortable socially. For me, then, the solution was to double down on student choice and to be ready to communicate with them through whatever channel they felt most comfortable using. If that was just a text chat, that was fine, as long as they were able to describe their learning and respond to me.

Tailor assessments to your instructional goals

In the past I’ve written my own unit exams or used questions from various textbooks or that other AP teachers have shared online. In another class, this might be an opportunity to bring in a variety of resources for students to study from. That can trip students up, however, if the stimulus-based questions are not exactly matched to the material they’re covering.

This past year I used UWorld’s Learning Tools for AP Courses to create assessments for my students. The questions are tightly aligned to both the material and the AP World History Exam. There’s enough variety to put a teacher in the driver’s seat as far as being able to craft assessments tailored to the instruction they’re offering. Students also get detailed explanations for every question, so unit exams become an opportunity to learn instead of just a means of measuring their learning.

Part of the reason my students’ unit test scores were up is because I gave them multiple attempts on their tests. I wasn’t just trying to hand out A’s. I wanted them to see what they were getting wrong, study that a little more, and give it another shot. Mastery learning is not a new concept; however, when attempting to apply sound pedagogy to multiple learning environments, it works!

Grades are good, and I hope all my students pass their AP exams, but most of all I want them to learn history and apply its lessons.

James Simmons is an instructional design consultant and former AP History teacher who used UWorld’s Learning Tools for AP® Courses. You can reach him by email at [email protected].

Like this article? Sign up for ASCD SmartBrief to get news like this in your inbox, or check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.