What We’ve Learned About Online Teaching: The 6 Ingredients Of A Successful Online Math Lesson

Online teaching is no longer something that just ‘online teachers’ or online math tutors do. Since the pandemic, the way we all live has changed significantly and it is no different in education. All educators and learners had to make a leap into online teaching, whatever their concerns, teaching experience or lack of confidence. 

And they’ve done it brilliantly, so much so that for many, learning remains a hybrid activity.

Whether they’ve chosen asynchronous recorded teaching moments, webchats up close to your webcam and 30 other hopeful 9 year olds emerging from a sea of GoogleMeet backgrounds, or full on live online classes, the variety and versatility of teaching has been astounding. 

There is no right way to do remote teaching, just as there’s no single way to do in-person teaching.  There are as many different methods as schools and the approach you take will depend so much on your school context. 

At Third Space, we joined teachers during the pandemic in teaching thousands of upper elementary students online math lessons. The only difference is that we had started doing this before Covid-19 hit and expect to be doing it long afterwards. 

Because the teaching is online, it also means children receiving online instruction for math from us have been able to continue their sessions at home even when their school was closed.

Online teaching doesn’t happen overnight 

We’ve made our own mistakes in online teaching, as we know many teachers will have done too. Not remembering to unmute yourself is the least of it! 

However, after 6 years in the online education business, we’ve also developed an effective way to ensure that every student, whatever their starting point, is able to learn and enjoy math with our tutors. 

So, if you’re looking to make improvements to your own online teaching, or are just interested to see how our online tutoring works, here are some helpful (we hope) online teaching tips that we’ve put together. 

Our specialty is in personalized math tutoring so inevitably that’s where we draw our examples from.

The following tips are given from the starting point that each child has access to a laptop or online device, an internet connection and, ideally a headset.

We know this is not the case for many children and are in awe of the steps the teachers and administrators of the students we are teaching online have gone on to achieve this.

A focus on access for all has to be the first priority before you can even consider how to improve your online teaching.

Student success depends on more than just their academic progress in learning

We understand that for a student to really make similar gains from online teaching as they would from face-to-face teaching, we need to factor in the impact and relevance of three domains to learning:

  1. Cognitive domain – making associations between new and known information (the traditionally accepted ‘thinking’ in learning.
  2. Metacognitive domain  – thinking about your own thought processes.
  3. Affective domain – related to your emotions and motivations around learning.

We believe that these three domains have to be developed together to maximize student learning. In many ways, it is difficult to achieve development in one without developing the others.

For example, if your student is in a bad mood or very upset (i.e. their affective domain is off-balance), it will be more difficult for them to achieve cognitive and metacognitive success as they may not engage with the content.

Tip 1: Pay attention to students’ attitude, as much as to their attainment

When we strive for and assess student success we look at how it is being achieved both in their ‘attainment’ and their ‘attitude’. These two components are fed by activities in the cognitive and metacognitive domain (attainment) and affective and metacognitive domain (attitude).

online maths lessons domain buckets
The three domains address both the attainment and the attitude components of student success

Both buckets are equally important to ensure students can learn to the best of their ability, even if the methods we use to develop them may be different. 

Our tutors are trained in teaching with regard to all three domains as part of their pedagogy. Our virtual classroom and online learning environment is designed to maximize opportunities for all three.

Our Curriculum Design Team (all former teachers) created a tutor training program with this philosophy in mind, so that our tutors effectively address all three learning domains.

The virtual classroom also provides an effective learning environment for tutors to incorporate metacognitive activities such as encouraging children to reflect on what they know and what they need to know. 

And in our reporting data we can directly track the impact that starting to enjoy their online math lessons with us can have. It’s huge.

When you’re doing your lesson planning it’s worth remembering, as you would in the classroom, that the children will be arriving with very different prior educational experience, engagement levels in math or even stress in their homes. 

Nurturing the affective domain is just as important as making sure you have the slides well structured or are ready to admit the children when the lesson starts.

Those attitudes we had been seeing, those children who’d thought they just couldn’t do it, were changing. All of a sudden they’re now going home and saying to their parents that they can do it! Their confidence has grown so much. They now challenge themselves and no longer fear math! They’re able to work through problem-solving questions very meticulously and have clear strategies to support them. That all comes from their work with their Third Space tutors, who obviously take it at the right pace for each individual child.– Tracey Hart, Assistant Headteacher, Aveley Primary School, Essex, UK 

Tip 2: Make the work in online teaching meaningful

When you’re teaching in the classroom it can be easy to keep students engaged with a topic; there are plenty of learning activities that will provide them with a visual or physical stimulus to draw them in. 

It’s a little more difficult online. Your pool of activities is smaller, as are the ways in which students can interact with them (and with one another). 

To combat this, we encourage you to add more context into your lessons. Embed the learning in real-world applications, related to what students might encounter at home. 

At Third Space Learning, we are lucky enough to teach online providing real time synchronous lessons to a single child at a time. This means true personalization: we can go at the child’s own pace and we can focus on their individual child’s attainment level or gaps in math.

It also means we are able to focus some of the reasoning and problem solving parts of the lessons on an individual’s interests and experience, helping to make it more relevant and meaningful to them. 

With a class of 30, while you can’t create entirely personal lesson plans and activities you can support children to understand how their learning is relevant to their everyday lives. 

We find that older students, including middle school and high school, in particular respond well to this. 

Read more: Why is math important?

Tip 3: Be open to alternative assessment opportunities

Teaching online provides another wrinkle to the learning process that isn’t normally encountered in the classroom – how to assess a child’s progress. 

With classwork and homework both more difficult to set up (and to some extent, to enforce), many of your teaching strategies to check that students have understood the topic being covered are less effective or completely lost. 

Not to mention that you’ll likely have to contend with variable attendance, meaning students will often have very different levels of understanding at each point in the learning journey. 

Wherever possible try to make use of the functionality open to you – whether that’s a simple ‘raise your hand’ response, quizzes or typing something in the chat, or as some schools are doing – using interactive touch screen questioning during live lessons. 

One advantage of the remote learning environment is that you may be able to focus more closely on each child, and find more time to work one-on-one with them. to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and help them develop. 

This means you can more easily work through the formative assessment cycle with each student:

online maths lessons afl cycle

The following tips relate to how you can maximize the sequence through cognitive and metacognitive techniques.

Tip 4: Verbalize everything, and encourage students to do the same

Unless you’re only using video calling software, you’re likely to need to share your screen with your student(s) while teaching online. This means both you and they will be unable to pick up on the sorts of visual cues you’re used to.

You’ll need to be able to work out when a student is struggling through other means, primarily by listening.

To facilitate this, increase how verbal both you and your student(s) are.

Third Space tutors spend a significant amount of time in lessons asking probing and prompting questions of students to better gauge their level of understanding, and their thought processes.

We also provide prompting questions in lesson slides to achieve much the same.

Tip 5: Explicitly highlight which parts of the lesson you are working on

This tip is specifically related to sharing screens or using online classroom software. Whether you’re working through a problem to demonstrate it, or working through it with a student, it can be easy to fall into the trap of covering it too quickly.

Thankfully this can be remedied relatively easily, especially if you’re already practicing increased verbalisation.

Just as we might ask probing questions of students, we can ask questions to check that they’re following what we’ve just done.

However it’s even more effective to simply consciously slow down what we’re doing and find ways to highlight it.

Third Space Learning online math tutors have access to a wide variety of e-learning tools to do this e.g. using a pen tool to underline/draw around certain words.

This way you can drive children to focus on the aspect of the lesson you want them to look at rather than the peripheral information.

Tip 6: Make use of the resources you have available when teaching online

There are plenty of online resources and interactive tools available to you now that you can’t use so easily in classrooms, so it’s worth making use of them.

One of the most difficult parts of teaching in the classroom is remembering everything you need to cover in a lesson. 

It’s all too easy to focus on one issue for too long and realize at the end of the lesson that you have missed a key piece of information or math skill, and covering it will take time away from whatever comes next. 

Teaching online, you can refer to notes and prompts to yourself without issues.

All Third Space Learning online math lessons come with a set of high quality teaching materials and tutor notes highlighting the major points to be covered, key vocabulary etc.

In this way, tutors always have a reference point if they feel they’re missing something. 

Similarly, we also include support slides with each of our lessons.

These additional slides provide tutors with fundamental parts of topics to direct students to if they’re struggling, without having to move away from the main focus of the lesson and disrupt the learning experience.

You can also do this by providing links to online versions of the sorts of concrete resources children might have access to in class like base ten blocks, a place value grid (including decimals) or a multiplication chart.

third space learning sample online lessons slide
At Third Space Learning, we use manipulatives on screen that children may be more used to handling as concrete resources to support their learning.

Once you’ve made the effort to do this once, then your slides will be online ready for any future lessons.

Adding additional slides to your own lessons might seem like extra work, but the benefits down the line will make the effort more than worth it!

Whether you’re on Zoom, Skype, Googlemeet, Microsoft Teams or using your own teaching platform like we do, we hope these tips can provide you with some additional ideas to consider.

Ultimately this is just about all of us, parents, teachers, schools, children and education providers, doing our best to ensure that students are still able to learn during this challenging time for everyone.

Do you have students who need extra support in math?
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Each student receives differentiated instruction designed to close their individual learning gaps, and scaffolded learning ensures every student learns at the right pace. Lessons are aligned with your state’s standards and assessments, plus you’ll receive regular reports every step of the way.

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The content in this article was originally written by a member of the content team Anantha Anilkumar and has since been revised and adapted for US schools by elementary math teacher Christi Kulesza.


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