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How to Challenge Students in a Virtual Setting

There are a lot of challenges teachers have been dealing with lately, given our current pandemic as many schools are forced to move their classrooms online. Unfortunately, in this virtual setting, there are those students who need to be challenged but whose needs are not being met. A lot of times in a virtual setting, the learning is asynchronous, with the teacher putting up assignments in an online platform designed for all, but with little thought concerning differentiation for the gifted student.

The question is, how do you challenge high ability students in a virtual setting? The answer is the same way you challenge them in a regular classroom, with some modifications, of course. Here are five things teachers can do to challenge their gifted students and other high ability kids in a virtual setting.

Use of PBL

Project-based learning totally lends itself to online learning and high ability students. Typically, projects do not require a ton of direct instruction, and students can self-pace. If there are parts that do require direct instruction, you can either guide students to a video resource online or record your own lesson using a platform such as WeVideo or Flip Grid. The nice thing about projects is that they differentiate quite organically, so if a student enters into the project knowing a good deal about the topic already, he can begin the project from that point. If, however, he only has the barest of knowledge, he could start there. Students may arrive at different places, but they are arriving as far as their ability can take them.

What this would look like in a virtual setting is you would post a project and then offer supports, whether it be skills that need to be taught, an explanation of something, or suggestions for increasing the rigor. You should conference with students every so often during a project to make sure they are on track. This could be an email exchange, a Google Meet, or the sharing of a document. For examples that could be used, go to https://www.thegiftedguy.com/resources, where there are several free projects available.

Giving students options

How much choice do your students have in the learning process? Can they determine for themselves which method is the best way for them to learn, which product will best show mastery, or even better, how they can challenge themselves? We need to provide students with more choices, even in a virtual setting. One example would be how students are assessed. Do students have a choice in how they show their mastery of a learning objective? If a student is a strong writer, she might choose to show what she learned in a journal entry or essay. Another student might be a good speaker and can show what he learned in a presentation or speech. By providing students with choices, they can use skills they already bring to the table and challenge themselves to produce a high-quality product.

Student choice can also be designed to teach students executive functioning skills such as time management and organization. If you give students two weeks to learn something and challenge them to choose any method they want to, how will they prioritize, and do they know their own learning styles well enough to pick the one that is going to best help them to learn? For more on how student choice can raise the rigor, you can watch this video https://youtu.be/JLDeTBHcrLk 

Taking the ceiling off of learning

Too many times, we put a finish line for students on an assignment, and once they cross it, the learning is over. For example, a teacher gives a student 10 math problems to solve, so when he finishes the 10th problem, he is finished. What if instead, you extended this finish line to give students room to explore all sorts of possibilities? At the end of the 10 problems, what if you challenge students to come up with some problems of their own using the same math concept or make an argument for the problem that is most challenging and why? An assignment needs to be set up to allow students to take it as far as they can without coming to a grinding halt.

The best way to remove the ceiling is to have assignments w a variance of different possible answers. Problem-based learning lends itself to this very well and involves posing an unsolvable problem and letting students take a crack. It could be big picture stuff such as how to stop the pollution of our oceans, or smaller fare such as whether peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are better with the crust cut off or left on. You could pose these problems in an online setting and step back and watch students come up with all sorts of possibilities. The important thing is that when they finally arrive at their answer, it is not because they reached a dead end, but rather because they worked until they were proud of what they did. 

Providing enrichment opportunities

Work that you post online does not always need to be graded or even part of your curriculum. You can offer enrichment opportunities for students, whether it is something as simple as making a Sudoku or Rebus puzzle available, or giving them a link that shows them how to code and then provides them the opportunity to do so. This is not required work but simply topics that may seem interesting to students, causing them to try it on their own. Because of this, these need to be high-interest enrichment activities, and there are plenty of them available already, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It could be a tutorial video found on YouTube, a lesson on Khan academy, or a website that offers new interesting skills. You can find videos that provide enrichment to students of all ages at www.thegiftedguy.com/enrichment.

Challenging their thinking

No matter what method you decide to use, first and foremost, the important thing to do to challenge students is to challenge their thinking. That means asking the sorts of questions or posing the kinds of situations where students are accessing higher levels of thinking, such as those found in Bloom’s Taxonomy like evaluating, creating, or analyzing. A worksheet online is just as crappy as a worksheet in the classroom if it is merely asking comprehension questions. We need to be asking students questions that get them to ponder and ignite their curiosity. You can use lower-level questions to build up to this point, but too many times, students are hunting and pecking for a single correct answer instead of contemplating the hundreds of possible answers. Knowledge is not learning; it is merely the first step in truly understanding something and being able to manipulate it for your own purposes. We have to ask questions of students that allow them to explore this and push their thinking. One example would be asking them an ethical question in which they have to combine the facts with their own opinions. Such as, were the colonists right to throw the British tea in the Boston Harbor? Or was Jonas Salk crossing the line when he experimented on himself and his family to test the polio vaccine?

These questions can be done in a reflection journal, a warm-up, an activity, or even an assessment. To view a webinar on how you can ask these sorts of questions, you can go to https://vimeo.com/420783516.

No matter what method you decide to use, you must ask yourself, is the work I’m asking students to do in a virtual setting designed to allow those who can go further or deeper to do so? If the answer is no, then you need to find ways to challenge these students because they have specific needs.

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