Practice Makes Perfect, But Don’t Forget About the Theory

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research, EXPLO Elevate

What most teachers and students are experiencing right now is emergency online instruction and not a well-organized or planned-out remote learning program.

It was slapped together quickly, by necessity, with some schools holding either one or two days of training for teachers, or none at all. It has meant teachers are working in isolated environments that are not where they are used to teaching (Yes, that was my kid running behind me while I teach linear equations), trying out things for the first time without any knowledge of how it will actually work (If you take a picture of the assignment and send it to me, I am sure I will be able to see it!)), and trying to teach in a modality that they were never trained to do (What’s a Zoom breakout again and why should I use it?).

I have spent quite a bit of my time working with colleges and nonprofits on teacher preparation program design. A core component of effective teacher prep, we often discuss, is a blend of theory and practice. In an ideal sense, this means that a teacher candidate would have the opportunity to learn the theory and research behind the pedagogical skills they are expected to master, alongside the opportunity to practice these skills in real-time. While a critique against teacher prep programs is that they focus too heavily on the conceptual, sometimes to the detriment of the practical, there are likely none (or very few) that omit one in favor of the other completely.




In today’s, COVID-19 remote instruction world, teachers are getting loads of practice, and unfortunately it is all in real-time with no guardrails. As a former teacher, I am both terrified and inspired. I am so impressed with what so many teachers have learned in a short period of time – new technological skills, a variety of ways to connect with their students remotely, and an ability to rework assignments and grading practices on the fly. Yet while they are making it work, many are still struggling and need extra support.

This need for assistance, actual training, will hold even more true as we start to look towards the next school year; teachers will need to continue to build or refine their skills in both blended instruction as well as fully remote instruction given that (1) there is a possibility for closures again in the fall and (2) some students (and teachers) may need to maintain their distance learning program even when schools reopen.


How the Brain Processes Information

As schools plan for summer or fall professional development for their faculty, it may be helpful to support teachers by providing the evidence-based research behind effective pedagogical practices for online instruction alongside opportunities to try them out in low-stakes settings before the school year begins. Take for example, Richard Mayer’s work on the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. His theory articulates the following, based on an analysis of how the brain processes information:

1. There are two separate channels (auditory and visual) for processing information (sometimes referred to as Dual-Coding theory);

2. Each channel has a limited (finite) capacity:

3. Learning is an active process of filtering, selecting, organizing, and integrating information based upon prior knowledge.


Cognitive theory supports best practices from a recent webinar Elevate hosted with online learning coach and teacher Adam Lavallee on designing courses to work both online and face-to-face. During that conversation, he discussed a laundry list of structures that a regular classroom has in place which are immediately known to students, such as how to read body language and where to sit. In an online course where these structures are not readily apparent, they are likely still on a student’s mind and taking up at least some of the limited capacity that students have for processing information.


Sample slide from our recent Webinar on Agile Design.


Mayer’s theory gives rise to many recommendations on how to best structure videos (whether they be a synchronous session or a pre-recorded asynchronous session) to maximize student learning and understanding in an online format. Given that we want to focus students’’s time in remote instruction on learning rather than finding, this framework is particularly helpful.

However, without any practical application, theories live in the land of “nice to know” and are not helpful to teachers on the day-to-day. This article from Vanderbilt University specifically discusses four effective practices based on Mayer’s Theory. One practice, signaling (the use of on-screen text or symbols to highlight important information) names that a strategy teachers’ could learn is color coding a few key words in their text to draw attention to that portion of the screen. Doing so can “reduce extraneous load by helping novice learners with the task of determining which elements within a complex tool are important, and it can also increase germane load by emphasizing the organization of and connections within the information.”



This example that illustrates signaling is just one practical application of a theoretical model for online learning that can be vitally helpful to teachers in designing the best instruction for their students. Spending time this summer in going deep on theory and research, but also ensuring teachers have the time to practice it, will help them build the confidence and skills they need to be ready for whatever derivation of the school year they and students experience in the years to come.

Mayer, R. E. (2010). Techniques that reduce extraneous cognitive load and manage intrinsic cognitive load during multimedia learning (R. Moreno, Ed.). In J. L. Plass, R. Moreno, & R. Brünken (Eds.), Cognitive load theory (p. 131–152). Cambridge University Press.