6 Ways to modify the structure of your lessons to decrease Transactional Distance

Transactional distance is the psychological gap existing between a learner and their teacher. In other words, you and the student are not on the same page.  

This gap must be bridged for learning to occur. 

There are three variables that can be manipulated to decrease transactional distance: dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy.  Our last stop in understanding Transactional Distance is learning how to alter the structure. 

Click here for more information regarding Transactional Distance Theory and here for a discussion on dialogue’s role in decreasing Transactional Distance.

Course structure is not the same as preparedness and less structure does not mean that the instructor is less prepared.  A course high in structure does not allow time for productive interaction because there is no time for deviation.  

A course low in structure allows for the instructor to respond to the learner’s individual needs.

Break down the structure barrier by making these adjustments to your plans:

1.  Be responsive in real time
The most important time for teacher-student interaction is immediately when they enter the classroom.  Be available when they enter for conversation.  Stand and wander throughout your room as they unpack.  Avoid sitting behind your desk.  

To you, when a student asks a question, that is just what it is, a student question.  However to them, it may resonate deeper.  You are their TEACHER, and they HAVE TO TALK TO YOU.  Remove that stigma and be approachable. 

When you respond to them immediately, they feel attended to and more connected to your course.  This will give you a small psychological advantage.  You become easy to talk to.

2.  Involve them
You give a student information sheet at the beginning of the year, use it to get them involved.  For example:

A painfully quiet student notes that she likes to ride horses.  So do you.  As a math example you say: “ Growing up I rode horses and the barn was 1100 square feet big with 11 stalls… at least one of us in here also rides ( as you say this she perks up and you quickly give her a quick glance of recognition)…. How big is each stall?”

A quick glance of recognition is all she needs.  Hook line and sinker.   You involved the student without calling attention to her.

Examples are important and your students need them.  Rather than a random example, pull on from a student information sheet. 

3.  Create small opportunities to participate but not standout

Design lesson where students contribute. As they contribute, they take ownership, feel connected, and Transactional Distance decreases.

Classic examples are think-pair-share and interview a buddy

Less common examples that work even better:
-five minute screen play (give them 5 vocab words, pretend they are characters in a movie, briefly describe their relation to each other)
-rename the unit (Topic 4 in your planner is “Earth’s Motions and Seasons”, to them it is “the causes of winter and the tilt” or “really boring stuff about angle and intensity of insolation”)

Ask for volunteers.  Collect everything and quickly read them aloud.  They look forward to hearing theirs while listening to the others.  This is so quick and yet so effective.

4. Give them a choice

You have to do the following in an 84 minute block of time, each item takes 14-16 minutes
-group open notebook quiz
-think pair share and report
-white board review activity
-item a-e in notepacket

In this situation, you don’t care when they take the group quiz.  They vote and decide to take it first.  THEY decided to take it first.  This is another way the students take ownership and feel connected.  

When they have control of certain aspects of your plan, they feel connected.  When they feel connected, Transactional Distance decreases.

5.  Introduce a little autonomy for work outside of school

This goal is to create a flexible, student responsive course.  Giving them choice of what and when to complete homework will make them feel responded to.

Try the following:
List five items for homework. Tell them to choose three to submit.  Most will choose what they perceive to be the easiest.  Spend the necessary time to make the three “easiest” the most beneficial. 
Further, create a flexible due date, they need to submit it within the next four days.

They choose what and when to complete and it no longer is work assigned by the teacher.

6.  Use scenarios to make them feel right

Personalize the lesson by using scenarios and themed questions.  When supported with evidence, opinions are never wrong.  A student will feel that their opinion is correct and connect themselves to content being taught. 

Flexibility is all about making the learner feel individualized. 

You can not get any more individualized than a learner leaving your class with an opinion that they formed from the content you taught.

In summary, structure is relative and qualitative.  Different content areas lend themselves to lessons that are less structured and more flexible.  Incorporate the ideas discussed above into your own instruction and find a balance that is appropriate for you and your content.  Taken out of context, “low structure” can be confusing.  Addressing your lessons and prioritizing opportunities for student individualization is what I’m advocating.  

Thanks for reading.

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