Lessons Learnt from Distance Teaching During Lockdown 

What was distance teaching like for students and teachers? Practising English teachers Kinga and Laci reflect on their and their students’ experiences. 

The end of the school year is always a great time for reflections; especially now, with months of self-isolation and quarantine behind our backs. Our “school’s out” edition tells the story of a mini-research we carried out among our students to summarise what went down in the past three months of distance teaching and learning.

We asked our students to give end-of-term feedback on the courses we taught.

Here’s what we found out.

Class organisation

What students said:

  • “In smaller groups, we could work together more efficiently, and we also got a lot more attention.
  • “[We need] more, smaller-group lessons.”
  • “We got equal attention when being asked one by one by the teacher.”

Laci: Since I had the opportunity to reorganise my regular groups to my own liking, I decided to divide my 16-18 students per class into smaller study groups of 5-6. Each of these groups were expected to take part in a 45-minute online speaking session every week. Apart from this, independent class work was required regularly to keep up with the syllabus. Not only were those 45 minutes used for activities and group work, they also provided a platform for students to ask questions regarding their progress or anything relevant.

Kinga: As lessons via group calls were difficult to manage, even with only 12 students, I sometimes divided the class. When working together in a more frontal manner, I decided to ask them in alphabetical order during the lesson. This is something I hadn’t really done in class but apparently, it promoted equality and generated less embarrassment than I expected. 

Learning environment

What students said:

  • “This quarantine meant less stress for me.”
  • “At first, I was anxious about the speaking contact lessons but now, I’ve realised it was good for me to step out of my comfort zone while improving my speaking skills.”

K: School can be quite stressful with many lessons, short breaks and only a few spare minutes after certain exercises, with limited freedom in time management. I trusted my students, and I assigned the material of some lessons to them to do on their own. I was pleased to see that they were responsible. These delegated tasks allowed students to better plan their day, and  contributed to their academic achievements.

L: Luckily, my students have reached a fairly decent level of independence, thus working on their own from the comfort of their homes did mean an additional problem. Some of them possess excellent management skills and truly take their learning seriously. Many of my students elaborated on the benefits of learning online and stepping out of their comfort zone. One of the benefits was that they could open up to each other and to me. At times, the lessons felt like small team-building sessions.

Positive aspects

What students said:

  • “I felt these online [speaking] lessons were more useful, as I think speaking is the most important part in learning a language.”
  • “Thank you for managing our time so well and making it easier to plan forward.”
  • “I really enjoyed it because it was interesting, and using Padlet was amusing. I liked that we could design our presentations according to our style.”

K: I first used Padlet with fifth graders and they were great at it. Last month, I assigned a one-pager to my 9th and 10th graders, and despite the fact that they hadn’t known about this application, out of the 70 students in four different groups, only one student opted for creating a poster instead. I uploaded the study materials and they created a poster summarising the different sections of the handout. They could add extra information and illustration, and design it according to their style and taste, thus possibly increasing their motivation to work on the given topic. 

L: Since the students I work with are at or around level C1 (or advanced level) in English, I decided not to stick to the usual class sizes and methodology but create a more natural environment for them to experiment and use the language creatively. This dogme approach facilitated the meaningful expression and exchange of countless original ideas and thoughts. We established a weekly schedule with fixed time slots allocated to the study groups. Online tests were always at the same time, too, so students could plan forward in this regard as well.

Problem areas

What students said:

  • “I’m sorry we couldn’t say goodbye in person.”
  • “I wasn’t really focused on studying […] everything’s blank.”
  • “I missed speaking practice as opposed to writing.”
  • “It would’ve been better to schedule the classes in time.”
  • “There were many lessons when, working independently, I could’ve finished more quickly and efficiently.”
  • “During the quarantine, it was harder to gain profound knowledge.”
  • “As for the assignment topics, at times, choosing from a range of options would’ve been welcome; for example, an essay question.”

K: Officially, students were supposed to be online during the day, according to their original timetables. Despite the strict schedule, some students still missed lesson reminders. I wrote to them in the morning of the lesson, before 8.00 am, but they would have preferred to know the plan even earlier. To be honest, there were weeks when I found it extremely difficult to plan the whole week in advance; I was just overwhelmed… 

Fortunately, students were quite flexible and empathetic, as were we towards them. These soft skills have also developed dramatically during this period.

L: It was really difficult to oversee whether students were really doing the work. Not seeing them in person meant a challenge to ensure students take tests fair and square. Unfortunately, I cannot say that online testing (e.g., with the help of Redmenta) was 100% representative or reliable. One could, however, lessen the effects of this problem by increasing test difficulty while reducing the amount of time given for completion. Some students experienced issues with managing their own time and studies, thus it was difficult for them to keep up. Yet, on a positive note, they were always present during the speaking sessions and did incredibly well. All in all, I have nothing to complain about, and I know we will have plenty of time to brush up on things they may have missed, or will have forgotten by the time we meet next year.

Student development

What students said:

  • “I became more self-reliant through working independently.”
  • “I realised I really liked writing essays and articles.”
  • “I really liked the project work, since I could demonstrate my skills.”
  • “I liked the writing assignments, and I believe they were all useful. They weren’t a burden on me; I enjoyed every single one.”

K: When our school started using Microsoft Teams, we finally went green. I, personally, loved the idea of not having to hand out excessive amounts of sheets and handouts. Instead, all the students could either print the handouts or they could just note down what they needed from the documents. When we go back to school, I’ll probably offer to print the material but I won’t do that for those who prefer to learn from digital versions.

I was happy to see that my students enjoyed writing tasks. These are the parts of homework which take the longest time to prepare and which sometimes are accidentally forgotten. I suppose students had more free time to spend on writing (planning, researching, compiling and proofreading) and this might be the reason why they became more motivated than they had been before.

L: Due to increased learner autonomy, students were able to experiment with the language and find their own voice and fortes to express ideas in a more distinctive manner. They have discovered what they really liked, and also detected some problem areas where they could use some extra work. We did lots of collaborative writing where students had to produce a certain text in groups, e.g., an essay, or a report on a project they were doing. They also reported that learning a great deal from each other was also beneficial.

Study materials

What students said:

  • “Electronic files were much more organised than paper handouts at school.”
  • “Our Teacher wrote new words in Sticky Notes.”
  • “Our Teacher sometimes worked together with us via a shared screen.”
  • “Everything was available in our online notebook.”
  • “The study materials were available at a later time as well.”

K: When I worked at an elementary school, I often projected the book via iTools to facilitate the learning of weaker and less attentive students. During online teaching, this became useful with high-school students as well, as we didn’t have a board, and I had no idea if they were able to closely follow the steps. At school, you see the confusion in their eyes but online, you couldn’t. I also used sticky notes as a whiteboard, and copied their content into our online exercise book or chat conversion to aid revision and the work of students who couldn’t attend the lesson. 

L: I am certain there are many things and takeaways I will integrate into my English teaching next year. Online assessment and class management usually takes longer; however, this extra time is well compensated for in other areas such as marking and in-class work. Due to digital materials, students could access everything at a later time as well. We also managed to do something for our environment by reducing the paperload we would use to copy and print handouts.

So what have we learnt from this experience?

The past three months have been a real learning curve for learners and teachers alike. We could see the positive impacts of distance teaching especially in these areas: 

  1. Greater learner autonomy: this experience contributed to students becoming more autonomous in their learning, which is an important skill of competent adults and professionals. We could see improvement in their time management and the informed choices they made regarding home assignment topics.
  2. Increased language production: the communicative lessons complemented by various (group) projects and writing assignments accounted for an all-around skills practice opportunity. Students expressed positive feelings about this, and in many cases even discovered what they really liked about learning the language. These are all major milestones in a language learner’s journey and may indirectly contribute to maintaining motivation in the long run.
  3. Digitalised resources: using a shared platform was immensely useful as both we and our students were able to easily cooperate and interact with each other. The materials have been available in the online groups ever since. Online exercises may also be a means of differentiation as students can return to the practice tasks whenever they like, plus the reminders and scheduled “meetings” made planning easier for everyone.

On a final note, let us thank our students for their contribution. We feel lucky and extremely grateful to work with these highly motivated and skilled students.