Students learn at different paces. This doesn’t come as a surprise to educators, and yet we often treat students as if they all learn at the same pace: all students can only take so many classes/have to take a certain number of classes; all students must attend every class period; class periods are often the same length (save a “lab” period); homework is designed to take “x” amount of time; all students must do the same homework; etc. We know that students learn at different paces, and yet we often create policies and structures that assume a similar pace.
In the online learning environment (whether fully online, blended, or web facilitated), the varied pace of student work becomes easily apparent, as student work is tracked (clicks, hits, and time spent). Moreover, when teachers employ “mastery learning” or “personalized instruction" techniques, students are allowed/encouraged to move through learning differently. Education becomes more personalized and the teacher’s role changes from teaching the class to working with the individual student, and her/his unique needs.
This change in thinking about pacing (quite honestly) surprised me quite a bit when we first started the Online School for Girls. I knew intuitively that students learn at different paces, but I didn’t ever see the data nor the impact that pacing can have on student learning.
Consider this data from the 2013-2014 school year at OSG — student self-reported time spent on their course per week:
We expect students to spend about 6-8 hours on course work per week in our courses, and we ask faculty to build their courses to meet that time frame. And, sure enough, the plurality of students (32%) were in that time frame. But, approximately another third were in shorter time frames and the final third were in longer time frames. Moreover, time spent does not seem to equate to better or worse performance.
Understanding that learning time and pacing is different for different for students requires a change in teaching. From the perspective of the educator, this change means that work will be done much more one-on-one with individual students or in small groups, and less work will be done with a full class. For the faculty member who has made the transition from a “teacher-centered” to “student-centered” classroom, this next step to a “individual student-centered” classroom makes sense. For faculty who have not transitioned from the “sage on the stage”/”teacher as purveyor of knowledge” construct, this transition is exceedingly difficult.
Educators often speak about differentiated instruction. The online environment allows educators to get to differentiation as never before. Students can demonstrate mastery at different paces, and teachers can create more personalized learning experiences. To do so, teachers must be willing to relinquish some of the control that they have traditionally had over the classroom, become more facile with learning analytics, and think of time differently. The change is a challenge, but the ability to get towards greater personalization — long a promise of independent schools — allows schools to meet their missions more fully.
In order for schools to reach true “personalization” of learning, it will take quite a lot of professional development, time, and administrative support and understanding. This is why I have phrased this “Rule of Thumb” as: understand that time is different and flexible. In order for schools and faculty to get to the point of true personalization, they first must accept and understand the premise that time is different and flexible — and begin to understand how time is different for their own unique studentry.
A good place to start is student surveys. Ask students how much total time (classroom + homework) they spend on each course in the school. Schools may even want to try extracurricular work that students do, too, in order to have an even better sense of how time is used in their school community. We have found that student surveys are reliable and correlate well to analytics reports in our learning management system.
Once there is an understanding about what time/pacing in the school looks like, schools and faculties will likely need to have robust conversations about how time is used at the school, and the impact on student learning and the school community. Building the understanding of how time is used currently, and how it might be used differently (as a whole and for each student) gets a school on the road to personalization.