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December 28, 2020

3 Rigorous Engagement Strategies for the Remote Learning Classroom

When teaching in a remote learning setting, it can be challenging to move beyond basic assignments, especially when students seem to struggle while working independently. However, if you create engaging activities that are also rigorous, you’ll find your students can thrive. Let’s look at three strategies: deeper activities, academic discourse, and debates.

Deeper Activities

Rather than asking students to simply read the text and create a compare and contrast Venn Diagram, you can increase the rigor of your expectations.

Example One: Close Reading Research and Writing with K-1
After reading our book about ants, let’s read “The Queen Ant’s Birthday” and look for evidence of the different types of ant characters. Who are the worker bees and guard bees, and what do they do for Queen Aunt? How does the queen function like the queen bee in our nonfiction book? How do these bees live in community? What can we learn about living in community with one another from these two texts? In addition to using evidence from the texts, provide real-life examples to support your responses.*Idea adapted from

In a science classroom, students can move beyond reading and summarizing to creating their own investigation.

Example Two: High School Science
We have been discussing thermodynamics. Choose one of the three systems: open, closed, or isolated. In your group, identify a research question based on our discussion, but one that we have not fully explored. Next, design and conduct an investigation to answer the question. Write a report in which you analyze your data, draw conclusions, and cite your evidence.

In both of the examples above, students can work with a partner or a small group using shared documents, chat rooms, or discussion boards to create their work. Specific tools are discussed in the next section on Academic Discourse.

Academic Discourse

Do your students participate in conversations during your lessons? Were you aware there is a difference between “student talk” and academic discourse? Talk is typically at a surface level and often times veers off topic. Academic discourse, on the other hand, is focused on the content and incorporates academic vocabulary.

If we want to incorporate discourse into our classroom, we cannot assume that it will automatically occur. In addition to teaching students what to discuss, we need to provide and teach a set of norms explaining how to discuss. For primary students, choose three to four norms that are easy to remember and post them with pictures or symbols for visual cues. For example, for younger students, you might use Listen to EveryoneWait Your TurnMistakes are Okay. For older students, you might include: We actively listen to each other, which allows us to authentically contribute our perspectives, or If you don’t agree with someone, find a positive way to respond without embarrassing the other person.

Although there are a wide range of tools that can facilitate discussion, some are particularly helpful. One option that allows for open conversation in a secure, private chatboard is This platform allows teachers to pose a question or idea and have students respond with evidence from outside sources to support their thoughts. YoTeach is a similar tool which allows teachers to open chat rooms as a whole class or in small groups. This allows for real-time conversation between students, with the ability for the teacher to moderate and redirect if necessary. Flip allows for visible discussion as students create short videos in response to a topic the teacher publishes. Peers can then submit response videos and students can have dialogue “face to face.” Reluctant writers enjoy this option, as it allows them to speak about their thoughts and contribute without their writing skills holding them back. Each of these can enhance student learning.

Moving into Debates

A specific type of discourse is debates. At the primary grades, students can actively participate in debate activities such as I Think / You Think. With a partner, students share what they think about a topic, and provide an example of their thought. Then, they switch. At the upper elementary or middle grades, students, working individually or in small groups, must research a topic thoroughly enough to be able to anticipate and refute an argument in an instant. Small groups can occur in breakout chat or video rooms, or through a shared document.

Former teacher, Lindsay Yearta, used an early form of debate to teach her students to see different perspectives on an issue. She begins with a handout that includes a statement: “I am for/against (insert your topic here).” Next, she assigns each student a position (for or against). The students circle their position on a handout and then research three reasons to support their position. She says, “They get into their groups and come up with what they think the other group would say. What do you think their points are going to be? Then, they write down at least three points their opposition might have and they research comebacks to the opposition’s points. They have to think ahead and research not only their position, but the other side as well. Then, when we hold our debate, each student had to speak at least once.” The verbal exchange is supported by the depth of research on both points of view. To increase rigor, students must support and justify their claims with research, testimonials, textual evidence, etc. Depending on your technology resources, students can debate in a chat setting, through a series of blog entries or text messages, or platforms such as DebateArt.

Sample Debate Topics
After reading The One and Only Ivan, do you think zoos should be banned?
Is remote learning better than being in our school building?
Should companies be allowed to make a profit at the expense of the rainforest?
Would we be better off if we were not required to learn algebra?

A Final Note

It is possible to provide rigorous and engaging activities in a remote learning setting. Whether you want to increase expectations in student tasks, ask students to shift from talking to each other to engaging in academic discourse, or encouraging thoughtful analysis of issues, you can adapt the best practices used in your classroom to remote learning.

Barbara Blackburn is the author of the textbook we use in Course 5130: Planning for Engagement and Rigor in the Online Classroom.

An Interview with the Author:


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