The return to remote learning
With coronavirus cases soaring across the UK, the first week of 2021 has seen a return to many of the challenges of the last year. A six-week lockdown is now underway, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing that primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England would be closed except to the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.
Teachers, tutors and parents are once again faced with teaching children remotely, as in-person lessons come to a halt. The hope now is that months of practice prior to this has equipped home educators with the tools to do this effectively, with little disruption to the learning of students.
What actually works for online lessons?
There is still debate surrounding the best means to help your child continue their education from home. Many parents have assumed the most effective method of teaching children at home is through streamed and live lessons, delivered with a teacher or tutor directly present on the other side of a screen.
This might seem indisputable: a streamed lesson must be analogous to the classroom, as a teacher can directly address the concerns and wavering attentions of their students in real time. However, when removed from a classroom setting, this level of attention and lesson adjustment becomes far more difficult, especially when faced with a class of between twenty and thirty students.
During the first lockdown in March 2020, we at Eleven Plus Exams undertook extensive research into the best methods for the optimal delivery of our 11+ preparation courses. We reached out to teachers, head teachers and our contacts in academia, at Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Our findings led us to the conclusion that pre-recorded lessons were the best means through which to continue to teach our own cohort, as opposed to interactive streamed lessons.
Pre-recorded Lessons: the advantages
Perhaps the most notable advantage of pre-recorded lessons is their accessibility.
One of the biggest obstacles to online learning is its reliance on bandwidth speeds and devices capable of accessing the internet. With households with two or more children, alongside parents trying to access work related virtual meetings, issues arise for households with limited bandwidth and limited laptops/computers and trying to stream multiple live lessons simultaneously.
Bizarrely, a legal duty came into force last October, which compelled schools to “set online work that is of equivalent length to the core teaching pupils would have received in school”. This, despite the fact that up to 1.178 million (9%) students do not have adequate access to a laptop, desktop or tablet and more than 880,000 children live in a home with only a mobile internet connection.
With pre-recorded lessons this problem is somewhat mitigated, as lessons become available on demand, and the pressure of access is eased.
2. Pause, rewind, repeat.
Another natural benefit of pre-recorded lessons is the ability to pause, rewind and re-watch lesson content. Students who find they need to spend more time on a certain topic now have the option to do so: they can replay an explanation several times while working and ensure they feel confident before moving on.
It is also a more efficient way to revise subjects they have previously covered. In our own experience, pre-recorded lessons have proven to be more streamlined and their duration usually half that of a normal in-person lesson. This has allowed students to review their weekly lessons twice or three times in the time it would have taken them to sit through an entire interactive lesson.
3. Quality of teaching.
Overall, though, there isn’t much conclusive evidence that supports one method of teaching over another. A report from the Education Endowment Foundation has found that “the quality of remote teaching is more important than how lessons are delivered”. According to this report, “What matters most is whether the explanation builds clearly on pupils’ prior learning or how pupils’ understanding is subsequently assessed.”
Pre-recorded lessons, at least, offer the opportunity to focus fully on the quality of a given explanation, rather than the maintenance of an online call or the need to repeat an instruction several times.
In our own online course, we have found the benefit of a pre-recorded lesson comes in the ability to switch seamlessly between recorded lesson, online test and recorded reviews of the answers to a test. In their own time, a student can learn a topic, test their understanding of it and then receive guidance on their mistakes, so that their understanding of a particular subject is comprehensive and their weak areas immediately addressed, in a way that strives to imitate the lesson format students receive with our own in-person tuition.
Motivation and focus
Of course, this isn’t to say there aren’t benefits to streamed lessons. How does one maintain a child’s motivation without the external pressure and guidance of a teacher and classmates in real time? This is a problem several parents have likely faced, as the months of remote learning have dragged on and boredom has settled in.
Interactive sessions have proven beneficial for motivating pupils. A direct line to a teacher can often help clarify misunderstandings and missteps in a child’s learning and can be useful for providing feedback on a child’s work.
In this case, at Eleven Plus Exams, we have found interactive sessions beneficial in consolidating knowledge that the children have already learnt. We have adopted the use of remedial sessions, attended by a subset of the full cohort, where concerns and questions can be addressed by a teacher that reviews the past week’s topics, that students will have already covered in pre-recorded lessons.
Live sessions for the purpose of revision and remedial study are more focused and effective, as they are tailored to the needs of the attendee students who have already had exposure to the lesson topics before the session and understand their weak spots. This means the session can usually be shorter than a typical lesson and kept to a reasonable length of one hour. It also means the students are more likely to be attentive and focused during the shorter session.
The implied efficiency gain is that students only attend remedial interactive lessons if they need it and only in the subject/topic they need it in. Furthermore, it encourages independent learning and research and encourages students to revisit their learning for the week.
Our model has proven to be effective based on the 11+ results released so far for last year’s cohort.
We appreciate that some parents will continue to have an intuitive preference for live interactive sessions or have the belief that this approach is ultimately better for their child. The needs of each child will differ; our online model, though successful in practice, may not necessarily be suitable (as with our in-person tuition course) for every child.
Interactive lessons certainly have their benefits, but research has shown that they are most beneficial for primary school aged children only when they are delivered to smaller groups (usually less than five, with lessons of duration less than 45 minutes) with a particular, specific focus to the session.
Most tutors are aspiring to replicate, as best they can, the magic of the classroom itself. The classroom comes with a lack of distractions, a tailored learning environment, the ability to adjust and adapt a lesson based on the needs of the students in real time and the ability for students to learn from one another as they interact – things that are all very difficult to recreate either interactively or through pre-recorded lessons.
Until our students can return back to their classrooms, tutors must continue to try new and different methods of teaching, in order to assure students obtain the best education they can in very challenging circumstances.
We have been striving to provide a “best of both” approach. Eleven Plus Exams continue to provide both physical lessons where possible, pre-recorded lessons for all their benefits, and streamed, interactive lessons to consolidate students’ learning and keep our cohort motivated. In doing so, we believe we can make the most of a child’s learning time by maximising how much they are practising and revisiting topics. The axiom of the 11+, afterall, is just that: practise, practise, practise.
Those not on our live program, however, can still benefit from some of our online content by visiting and trying (for free) or subscribing to our Virtual Learning Environment.