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University of Virginia researchers find that classroom simulations, combined with coaching, help prospective teachers improve their classroom management skills. Credit: Courtesy of the Curry School of Education and Human Development

The coronavirus school closures have triggered a mass experiment in using educational technology, from video conferencing to automated feedback. Many users are underwhelmed and longing for the moment we can return to traditional in-person instruction. But now that teachers are getting a lot of practice in using technology, I wonder if the long-term effects of this pandemic will be increased use of technology not by students but by teachers behind the scenes. 

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One area that researchers have been investigating is how to use computerized classroom simulations for teacher training at schools of education. Medicine, aviation and the military have been using training simulations like this for years, teaching people to make better splitsecond decisions in pretend hospitals, cockpits and battlefields. But simulations have been introduced to teacher training only in the past decade and a lot is unknown about how to use these artificial classrooms effectively and whether they help teachers perform better in real classrooms.

University of Virginia researchers are rigorously testing computerized simulations of misbehaving students to see if they help student teachers practice controlling classroom behavior — a common bugaboo for novice teachers. In the spring of 2018, more than 100 prospective teachers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development took part in an experiment in teaching an unruly classroom. Video game-like student characters loudly hummed or sang and talked with each other about their personal hobbies and other irrelevant topics. Sometimes the simulated students texted or took calls on their cell phones. (A professional actor remotely controls the naughty avatars behind the scenes. Nice gig.)

Related: Teachers need lots of training to do online learning well. Coronavirus closures gave many just days.

The teaching students decide how to respond within the virtual environment and are supposed to practice how to redirect students by telling the students what to do in as few words as possible — by saying, for example, “We listen silently,” in a calm and kind voice. (The school of education follows the “Responsive Classroom” approach to managing behavior. ) 

Meanwhile, the researchers had randomly assigned the 105 teaching students who participated in the experiment into one of three approaches using the simulator: a short coaching session after each practice simulation to review and give feedback; a live “bug in the ear” with a coach whispering what to do during the practice simulation, and a self-reflection exercise to guide the teachers to think about classroom management techniques on their own.

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Both coaching approaches — brief feedback sessions and bug in the ear — produced similarly strong gains in teachers’ classroom management skills as measured by improvements in how teaching students responded in subsequent simulation sessions. But self-reflection was a dud. Not only did the teaching students not improve their behavioral management skills but their negative attitudes about the unruly students became more entrenched. The researchers found that they were more likely to think the students were the problem and embrace punishments, such as removing disruptive students from the classroom. In other words, coaching was helpful but self-reflection was harmful. 

“That’s a real, potential ‘A-ha’ moment in teacher ed,” said Julie Cohen, one of the study’s four authors and an assistant professor at the Curry school. “We push self-reflection as a key lever in improvement. We think that thinking and reflecting on things will help us get better. But when people are just starting out, they can’t self-reflect as productively as we want them to. When we see it without outside coaching support, people dig into negative beliefs about kids. Early teachers might need a lot more coaching than we’ve been giving them.” 

The results were published online in February 2020 in the journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis under the title, “Teacher Coaching in a Simulated Environment.”

Since publication, Cohen has learned that her research subjects successfully applied the skills developed in the simulated environment to real classrooms. 

“We just got our data and we see that candidates who were coached in our study in classroom management [showed] significant coaching effects persisting into their student teaching placements,” said Cohen. Education students at the university submit videos of their student teaching in real classrooms as part of their clinical practice requirements. Those videos are separately rated for classroom management skills and the researchers were able to see that the students who were randomly selected for the two coaching options received higher marks on their videos.

Related: Does every teacher need a coach?

Running computerized simulations of classrooms isn’t cheap or a way to save time. No one has yet figured out how to create virtual characters that can talk and respond automatically through artificial intelligence. Simulations still require a live actor to operate the students behind the curtain and a human teaching coach to watch and give feedback to the teaching student. (The Mursion simulation technology that the University of Virginia and many institutions are using was originally developed at the University of Central Florida and is also called TeachLivE.)

“There’s a lot of resistance to this,” Cohen said. “People think we’re trying to replace clinical experiences with real kids, and that’s not what we’re saying. But there are things you can do with this technology that you can’t do in those contexts, like give people the coaching and the chance to do it again right away.” 

Cohen sees the simulation exercises as a complement to student teaching in real classrooms, just as medical students do patient simulation exercises in addition to their residencies in hospitals. 

Cohen is especially interested in creating simulations of things that student teachers rarely get a chance to try and practice, such as leading a parent-teacher conference. “We’re trying to focus on things that we think they might not get feedback on all the time,” said Cohen.

But now with so many schools closed during the pandemic, Cohen told me that interest in using classroom simulations is growing. “A lot more people have been reaching out to me in the last month,” she said. 

This story about teacher training simulations was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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