Too Much Screen Time? Here Are 4 Ways to Maximize It for Learning

Screentime Blog

With the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a drastic increase in the use of digital tools at home.

Amid the school closures, we’re using digital devices to help teach students and have them look up information, connect with family and friends, play games, and relax. Whether or not your school has sent online links and teaching resources, your students may be busily engaged on screens all day. The question is, are they actually learning anything? 

Even if information presented in a video is accurate and tied to standards, that doesn’t mean it’s engaging or supporting students’ recall of that information later on. Just like in offline settings, students have a limited capacity for intense focus and attention when it comes to online activities. If you are having your child use online instructional or practice programs at home, aim for shorter, more frequent sessions at 20 minutes or less at a time for Grades K–5. For middle and high school, class sessions could be longer at 30–45 minutes at a time. Space sessions out across the day to give the brain time to process, forget, and then retrieve the content again—this will help students remember it better later!

As chair of the Learning Sciences and Research Advisory Board at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I’ve spent the last year working with experts from around the country to develop a framework called “RAMP Up Learning” to support creating Rigorous, Aligned, Motivating, and Personal learning resources and systems." RAMP describes elements from learning sciences that lead to effective learning experiences.

Ramp Graphic

To apply this framework to the idea of maximizing multimedia learning, I’m going to focus on interactivity, feedback, autonomy, and relationships. Allow these four questions to guide you as you evaluate the media your students are using so you can maximize their learning. 

1. RIGOROUS: Does this media support interactivity?

Interactive content provides students with opportunities to practice and build skills. For example, video games are obviously interactive. Designers have perfected the science of building up players’ skills systematically and sequentially. More open-ended digital programs, such as coding apps, better tap into students’ creativity and higher-order thinking skill development.

Prerecorded videos can also support interactivity. Research on Blue’s Clues showed that with repetition of the same episode, preschoolers called out responses to a prerecorded television character and learned new skills. For older students, HMH’s Math at Work series has sections with direct-to-camera narration and worksheets you can print out so students can work with the video in real-time.

Your job: Be prepared to scaffold (provide support) by asking students questions, setting challenges, and creating meaningful goals. Creating a routine with a set of characters or a branded program will be more meaningful than jumping around with different tools.

2. ALIGNED: Does this media enable feedback that supports and guides students? 

Feedback that supports learning flows in many directions, either immediately or after a delay. For example, students are informed if they are on the right track and why, while teachers get information about what supports the students need. The impact and timing of feedback depends on the context, but generally, the faster the feedback the better. However, getting feedback to students later is better than sending none.

Online learning programs provide students with feedback—for instance, saying that something is correct or incorrect—but may vary in the level of responsiveness. Programs such as HMH’s Waggle have adaptive instruction, which enables additional support or accelerated learning rather than requiring students to follow a rigid path. For open-ended games, the feedback to students needs to come from you after the student says, “Look what I made!” 

Feedback Quote

Individual or small-group videoconferencing allows for feedback to flow in both directions to support engagement and learning. For larger video conferencing sessions, speakers need at least one audience member to receive feedback in order to adjust their performance and maintain engagement. For example, my son sings along with his live music class of more than 40 students online. He responds to the teacher’s prompts and celebrations online even though my son’s mic is muted and the teacher is likely not actually looking at him.

Your job: Chose a format that allows for real-time, responsive feedback. Provide encouragement for students who get frustrated and celebrate with them when they reach milestones. Model how to actively participate in a conference call by asking questions and responding to the speaker verbally and nonverbally.

3. MOTIVATING: Does this media support students’ autonomy in their learning? 

Many of us are working while homeschooling, so we are relieved when students engage with learning activities independently. Research shows that using multimedia that provides students with different options of how to play—providing a sense of autonomy support and structure—are more engaging and conducive to learning than those with only one way to play.

When students are engaging with something new, caregivers may initially need to sit and support them. Once they gain an understanding of how to complete interactions successfully, the caregiver will be able to step away. In our house, we spent about an afternoon reviewing how to use Hour of Code with our students. The next time they went to the computer, they needed a brief reminder, and we stayed close by. This week, they were completely self-directed and using the built-in tutorials as needed.

Your job: Set up an environment that fosters autonomy by building in choice and introduce new tools to boosts students' confidence to use programs independently. Look for programs that include many ways to play, which will increase their engagement. 

4. PERSONAL: Does this media build relationships or leverage relationships to support learning?

Learning is incredibly social. When students know the teacher believes in them, they are more likely to believe in themselves. For example, having familiar teachers supports learning better compared with having new teachers. One of my favorite media examples is that toddlers can learn better from Elmo than from an unfamiliar puppet, but with some effort students can get to know new puppets and mirror Elmo’s advantage. At my daughter’s elementary school, the literacy specialists and teachers split up the instructional videos they created. I immediately noticed that she was more engaged with the videos from the teachers she knew.  

When the in-person connection isn’t available, videoconferencing promotes bonding and supports relationships. Class online meetups can maintain a sense of community through rituals such as morning meetings, birthdays, and sharing. Setting up casual one-on-one or small-group chats is also fun and breaks up the days.

Your job: Be intentional about connecting your students with school friends and family. What used to happen naturally will now take more effort. Even small moments of connection are well worth it.

Over the next few months, your students will use several media and programs for digital learning. Some of these programs may be missing at least one of the above elements from RAMP. By keeping the questions and tips above in mind, you will be able to maximize media to ensure better learning outcomes for your students.


To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources. 

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