Six Strategies for Effective Distance Learning: A Summary for Teachers

Six Strategies for Effective Distance Learning: A Summary for Teachers

By Megan Sumeracki

Currently, in 2020, most of us are engaging in some sort of distance learning, and planning to do so in the near future. So, in the most recent podcast, Episode 47, I talked about emergency distance instruction and a few ways that the six strategies could be implemented in distance courses. For today’s blog, I decided to fill these explanations out in written form—producing multiple modes of presentation AND spacing! In this guide to distance learning, I am starting with the blog that I wrote last year summarizing the six strategies for effective learning for teachers. Some of the content is similar or even identical. However, I went through the entire blog and rewrote sections with an eye towards distance instruction.


Cognitive psychologists have identified six key strategies that promote learning in many situations, and this research can be implemented to promote long-term durable learning. These six strategies have been heavily investigated for decades, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest their effectiveness in a variety of situations. These situations can include distance learning!

Before digging into the specifics of each strategy, it is important to note that they are very flexible. This is a good thing, in that it means they can be used in a lot of different situations. However, this also means that there really isn’t a specific prescription we can provide that will “always work.” Instead, understanding the strategies and how they work can help instructors and students. Instructors can implement them in their distance learning environments (whether that be synchronous/virtual/remote or asynchronous/distance) in ways that will foster student learning that works best for their course, and students can infuse their study sessions with these strategies in a way that will promote long-term learning. There are also countless ways that the strategies can be combined to be used together. For example, explaining concepts to one another in an online discussion board often uses all 6!

The strategies

Spacing or spreading out learning opportunities over time improves learning. For example, students will learn and retain more if they study 30 minutes M-F, rather than for 2.5 hours all on one day. Students should create a schedule with brief study sessions each day and stick to it. Blocking off time works best because it is easy to procrastinate when an exam or assignment is not immediately due.

Creating a schedule and sticking to it is especially important in distance courses, where students are often required to move through more of the work at their own pace. In these cases, the students need to schedule time to complete their assignments (e.g., watching videos, readings, taking quizzes) AND study and review the content later. The flexibility of allowing students to create their own schedule and work through material at their own pace can be very convenient for students with busy schedules (e.g., those who are working a lot, have children at home, etc.). However, it then becomes easy for those students to put off assignments until right before they are due, when there might not be time to get it all done. This can also lead to cramming (the opposite of spacing). Instructors can help with this by guiding the students to create a schedule and spreading out the assignments and the review sessions. It is also beneficial for instructors to spread out the topics being covered across multiple weeks so that there is a space between the repetition of the same ideas. In lecture videos or virtual video chat lectures, instructors can repeat the most important concepts; the spaced repetition really helps!

Interleaving basically means jumbling up ideas. Students learn more when they can switch between different topics. Doing this helps students learn the similarities and differences between different ideas. In math, for example, students learn more when they solve many different types of problems during practice rather than solving the same type over and over. This typically leads to more mistakes during practice, but in the long-run, the students retain their knowledge much longer. When giving students homework assignments to do, require them to work on material that is both new and old (creating both spacing and interleaving). When engaging in video lecture discussions or online discussion boards, pose prompting questions that require the students to integrate knowledge across topics.

Retrieval practice involves bringing information to mind from memory. This happens when students take practice tests or quizzes, but it can be done in other ways too. For example, students can just write out what they can remember on a blank sheet of paper, or even draw ideas. The key is that they should bring the information to mind from memory. So, copying one’s notes would not be very helpful, but trying to summarize their notes from their memory would be very beneficial. The students do not need to remember everything and can check their notes or course materials after retrieval to fill in gaps.

In distance courses, instructors can utilize frequent low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes through course management systems. Because students will have access to their course materials, it is a good idea to write questions for which the students will not be able to find the answer word-for-word. Some research does show that open-book retrieval opportunities can be effective (1) and that multiple-choice questions can be written to be just as effective at producing learning as short-answer (2, 3). Write questions that require students to apply concepts to specific examples, or identify components within an example. You can also use time limits so that students are less likely to be able to look everything up or talk to one another while the quiz is happening. Finally, I like to write a larger number of questions and have the quiz randomly pull from the larger bank of questions so that not everyone gets the exact same question. This also allows me to let the students take the quiz twice for extra practice (and I keep their best score, or the average of their two scores depending on the course).

Concrete examples are often used by instructors. Concrete information is easier to remember than abstract information, and so concrete examples foster learning. Importantly, research shows that multiple examples of the same idea, especially with different surface details, helps students understand the true idea the example is intending to illustrate. This is because novices tend to remember surface details. Imagine teaching about scarcity and using airline tickets as an example. Students later may remember scarcity was about flying, but not the rest. Using other examples that have nothing to do with tickets (e.g., water during a drought) and making the link between the examples explicit for the students helps them understand the underlying abstract idea. Multiple concrete examples can be used in lecture videos. Instructors can even make short videos explaining additional concepts to be released to the students after the primary lecture (producing additional spacing).

Elaboration involves asking “how” and “why” questions about a specific topic, and then trying to find the answers to those questions. The act of trying to describe and explain how and why things work helps students understand and learn. Students can also explain how the topics relate to their own lives, or take two topics and explain how they are similar and how they are different. This strategy can be assigned alone or for pairs of students. In a distance situation, students can utilize elaboration in online discussion boards or in virtual groups via video chat. Provide the students with prompting questions (especially those that require the students to integrate information across different content, introducing more spacing and interleaving) and ask the students to work through the answers to those questions together.

Dual coding is all about combining verbal representations of information (words) with visual representations of information (pictures/diagrams). When we combine these, it is easier for us to understand the information being presented. Importantly, this is not the same thing as learning styles. While students do have preferences, matching these preferences does not help them learn. Instead, we all learn best when we have multiple representations of the same idea. Importantly, make sure the students have enough time to digest both representations. When students are studying, they should use multiple representations and try to explain to themselves how the different representations show the same idea. Dual coding can be implemented in online video lectures by presenting visual representations on the screen and voicing over the material. Just remember to avoid cognitive overload. Slow down and make sure to explain all aspects, or pause in the video (as awkward as it may feel) and ask the students to try to explain it to themselves out loud with the images on the screen. You can also encourage the students to pause and rewind when they are confused. Try to break the lecture videos up into smaller chunks so that students can work through “bite-sized” pieces.

A note about difficulty

Importantly, all of these strategies have a couple of very important things in common:

  • They are all difficult. The research consistently shows that this difficulty is a good thing; the strategies that feel easy are the ones that do not promote learning in the long-run.

  • They all promote long-term learning. This is important to remember. Often when using the strategies, it feels to students (and instructors) as though they are not promoting learning. This is probably due to the difficulty. However, the research shows us that, in the long-term (even 1-2 days later), these strategies work very well. Conversely, the strategies that feel easy and feel as though we “really know it” promote “learning” that is almost immediately forgotten (even by the next day).

Keep this in mind when implementing the strategies, and highlight these points for the students. This is especially important in distance scenarios where students are taking more control over their own learning! While we make judgments about what we think we are learning in the moment, what we really care about is what we can remember and apply in the future. The strategies should feel difficult, but not so difficult that the students cannot actually do them. This is where flexibility comes in, and adjustments can be made so that the students are challenged and not getting everything perfectly right, but are still somewhat successful.

For additional resources see the six strategies summary blog and podcast Episode 47.