Research-Based Implementation of Online Learning: Part One

Remote or online learning has quickly become commonplace for students across the country, and fortunately, research supports the conclusion that students can learn just as well from online instruction as from traditional classes (Cavanaugh, 2013). However, just connecting a student to a virtual Zoom presentation won’t fully educate and prepare them for the critical thinking needed for deeper learning and college and careers. To achieve the best possible learning outcomes for students, curriculum can’t just be moved online. Here, we’ll present eight ways to help educators execute a research-based implementation of online learning, split into two parts.

Best Practices for Research-Based Implementation of Online Learning

Best Practice #1: Prioritize Content Standards and Focus on Depth, Not Breadth

Every year, educators are challenged to cover an overwhelming number of standards, and with the projected COVID-19 learning loss, educators won’t be able to fill all the gaps in learning from the prior academic year. To be successful, teachers must be able to provide engaging, targeted instruction that meets students where they are and quickly gets them to where they need to be. Educators need to work together to identify essential standards based on endurance, leverage, readiness for next-level learning, and external exam requirements (Ainsworth, 2013, p. 25–27).

person asking a question

Best Practice #2: Don’t Assume Digital Natives Are Digital Learners

While today’s students have grown up with technology, they don’t become digital learners automatically. Research shows that to be successful in an online environment, students need strong self-regulation strategies—skills such as the ability to focus their attention, set goals, remember instructions, and monitor their thinking (Azevedo, 2005). Yet many students have never been systematically taught these strategies.

In an online environment, educators must not only explain how to use digital tools but also teach students how to regulate their thinking processes and schedule while learning (National Research Council, 2012). To maximize student success, teachers should also model how to focus and refocus their attention while participating in online learning.

beaker icon

Best Practice #3: Give Precedence to the Science of Learning

To ensure that online instruction is effective, teachers must give precedence to the science of learning and teaching. Students can only concentrate on one task for 2 to 5 minutes for each year of age—so a 5-year old could do 10–25 minutes per task, while a 15-year old could do 30–75 minutes. Consequently, research suggests that information should be taught in small segments (Sweller, 2008)—long synchronous or asynchronous lectures are not only dull to students but also do not facilitate learning.

Engaging students in online instruction that results in deep learning or “the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations” is key (National Research Council, 2012, p. 5). Effective online instruction should move beyond rote, “drill-and-kill” lectures and exercises, and provide meaningful practice opportunities.

laptop with speech bubbles on screen

Best Practice #4: Prioritize Students’ Social and Developmental Needs

Since students and teachers are physically distant in an online environment, educators must work harder to build student trust, create a sense of belonging, and boost student confidence. Creating an online teacher presence is not only critical to building students’ social and developmental needs, but is also the catalyst for making students accountable and invested in their work.

Students’ academic and emotional development and growth become more nuanced as they grow. If there is a mismatch between instructional materials and age, students will not learn effectively (Williamson et al., 2015). Because the needs of elementary-, middle-, and high-school students vary, experts agree that instruction should be developmentally appropriate. For example, in the early elementary grades, education should include engaging, interactive digital games, lots of animation, and real-world examples. In high school, learners will excel when presented with opportunities to learn through trial and error, while maintaining regular supervision.

Online learning can be an incredible resource for schools and districts, especially when students and staff may not feel safe in the classroom. Implementing it well requires consideration, planning, and training, as well as a shift in mindset for the entire school community.

To discover Best Practices 5–8, read Research-Based Implementation of Online Learning: Part Two

This blog post was adapted from Online Learning in the Era of COVID-19 with permission.


Ainsworth, L. (2013). Prioritizing the Common Core: Identifying the specific standards to emphasize the most. Lead + Learn Press.

Azevedo, R. (2005). Using hypermedia as a metacognitive tool for enhancing student learning? The role of self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist, 40(4),199–209. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4004_2

Cavanaugh, C. (2013). Student achievement in elementary and high school. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (3rd. ed.) (pp. 170–184). Routledge.

Marczak, L. (2020). Online learning in the era of COVID-19. Leaders of Learners, 14(12), 7–15. https://www.txascd.org/LOL_July-August_2020.pdf

National Research Council (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, James W. Pellegrino & Margaret L. Hilton, Eds. Board on Testing and Assessment and Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. The National Academies Press.

Sweller, J. (2008). Human cognitive architecture. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. van Merriënboer, & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.) (pp. 369–381). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Williamson, A. A., Modecki, K. L., & Guerra, N. G. (2015). SEL programs in high school. In J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (pp. 181–196). Guilford Press.

About the Author


Emily Kirk

After growing up in the Phoenix area, Emily escaped the heat to study in Flagstaff where she graduated from Northern Arizona University with a BA in Art History. She went on to work and study at The University of Phoenix, earning her MBA. After volunteering to teach English in Chile for a semester, she worked in sales and marketing for a major ocean freight carrier. Throughout her career, Emily has also taught ballet, so she is thrilled to be part of the Where Learning Clicks team where she can combine her love of teaching and business acumen to help transform classrooms.