At the start of a virtual workshop last week, a teacher sent me a note in the chat saying that she wanted to quit. She was frustrated and exhausted. This is a sentiment I’ve repeatedly heard this year as I work with educators who are teaching online, on hybrid schedules, or juggling the demands of the concurrent classroom.

I worry about the impact that this moment in education is having on teacher engagement. My doctoral research focused on the multidimensional motivational construct of teacher engagement in blended learning environments. There was a clear connection in the data between the quality of the teachers’ relationships with their students and their engagement at work. Yet, many teachers find it challenging to connect with learners as they navigate the demands of teaching online, on a hybrid schedule, or in the concurrent classroom where their attention is divided between in-class and online students.

The playlist model presents a strategy teachers can use to structure learning experiences that are more personalized to the needs of specific learners, provide students with more agency, and free the teacher to spend time connecting with and coaching learners as they progress through the playlist.

Building a Playlist

The scope of a playlist can vary dramatically. Some teachers are approaching the challenges of teaching in a pandemic by organizing a weekly playlist, while others create playlists that span a couple of weeks. Small-scale playlists may focus on introducing students to a particular concept or skill. In contrast, large-scale playlists may walk students through the process of conducting an experiment and writing a lab report or working through a multi-step project.

As teachers explore the playlist model, I encourage them to do the following.

Identify Standards and SkillsStarting from a place of the standards provides teachers with a clear road map for designing both the learning activities within the playlist and the rubric they will use to assess student learning at the end of the playlist.
Articulate Learning ObjectivesArticulating learning objectives creates clarity about what students are working toward in terms of understanding specific concepts and mastering specific skills.
Build in Formative AssessmentCollecting informal data throughout a playlist provides insight into what students know or can do. Beginning the playlist with an activity designed to assess prior knowledge, including checks for understanding as students move through the playlist, and ending with a reflective prompt can help teachers identify areas of growth and gaps that need to be addressed.
Mix Modalities and Provide ChoiceProviding a range of learning activities and allowing students choice can increase engagement.
– Present information using a variety of media–texts, videos, podcasts, interactive websites.
– Give students the option to take notes, draw or create sketchnotes, engage in discussion, or tinker.
– Invite students to make key decisions about how they consume, process, practice, and create.
Conferencing & Coaching with Teacher ChecksStrategically placing teacher checks into a playlist provides teachers with the opportunity to spend time with individual learners–in person or online–to review and discuss their progress. These teacher checks can be used to:
– Provide additional instruction, modeling, or guided practice.
– Give focused, actionable feedback to support progress.
– Make adjustments to the playlist to personalize the learning based on the individual student’s needs.
Assess Student Progress Allow students a choice when it comes to how they demonstrate their learning at the end of a playlist (e.g., choice board) and use a standards-aligned rubric to assess student progress toward stated learning objectives.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Should I build my playlist in a digital document or slide deck?

You can build a playlist in a digital document or a slide deck. However, teachers who want to insert video instruction, models, or directions into their playlist should build their playlists in a Google Slide deck or PowerPoint instead of a Google Document or Word Document.

2. Does a playlist have to be an individual endeavor?

Not necessarily. Teachers can assign students an individual playlist or strategically pair or group students on a shared playlist to encourage communication and collaboration.

3. Should the playlist be done synchronously or asynchronously?

This depends on both the age of the students and the requirements around synchronous time. Teachers may want to pull parts of the playlist into synchronous sessions, allowing them to progress during class while pulling individual or small groups of students into conferencing sessions. Teachers working online can create breakout rooms for individual students or groups of students to make progress on their playlist. While students work, the teacher can pull students who have reached a “teacher check” into the main room for a conference about their progress.

4. How do I keep track of individual student progress on a playlist?

I encourage teachers to create a Google sheet or Microsoft Excel sheet to track student progress. Give the sheet a title that corresponds with the title of your playlist. Create a page on your spreadsheet for each class period. Copy and paste the names of your students in the first column of the sheet. Then each column after should represent a learning activity or task from the playlist. This simple strategy gives teachers one location to track student progress and make notes during conferencing sessions.

5. How do I differentiate or personalize a playlist?

To differentiate a playlist for groups of learners with different skills, abilities, and needs, the teacher can create one version of the playlist then make a copy of the digital document or slide deck. Once they have made a copy, the teacher can modify the original playlist without recreating the whole thing.

To personalize a playlist, teachers can co-construct a personalized focus to follow each “teacher check.” That way, the teacher can review the student’s individual progress and decide with the learner what they need to continue making progress. Additionally, teachers can send students away from the playlist for personalized practice using adaptive software.

Need more support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

29 Responses

  1. Thanks for this! I think this model would be especially useful for this distance format but I am very stuck on how to make it work with required synchronous time, daily. Currently, we are being required 40 minutes of daily synchronous time… Thanks for any ideas!

    • Hi David,

      I would allow students to self-pace through the playlist (synchronously and asynchronously), and you can pull individual students or groups of students for support, differentiated instruction, feedback, and conferencing. I’ve worked with teachers who “have to” have kids online synchronously for 45-80 minutes a day (or every other day). They created enough breakout rooms for individuals, pairs, or groups to work through in real-time, then the teacher met with individual students to support their progress.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Technology has become a necessity in classrooms. I am a college student completing a field experience this semester and have been trying to support my mentor teacher technology wise. It is a learning curve for many experienced teachers. Thank you for this informational post- I will be taking this information to the classroom!

  3. I am intrigued by this idea but frustrated by this article which does not provide an example of such an activity. How is this not a sequenced project walk-through? How is this not a visualized lesson plan set up as an agenda? How is this specifically different than a choice board… it seems to be a different way to visualize flipped work. Please, do a follow up blog post! I’d be grateful.

  4. Thanks for sharing these resources. They provide a lot of support and inspiration for how I can adapt and use them in my classroom.

  5. Thanks for the article and explanation. Would you happen to have a playlist example for younger students (4th or 5th graders)?
    Thank you!

    • Hi Ana,

      I worked with a 3rd-grade teacher to design a playlist for a researched-based writing playlist focused on animals and animal habitats. The students selected their animals then moved through the playlist to learn about them and develop their writing. Unfortunately, I do not have access to that playlist to share (as it belongs to the teacher), but it was incredible how successful younger students were with the playlist model.


  6. I’d love to have more examples about how to get started with this. I teach math in 6th grade. Is the playlist for one entire topic or one lesson or a few lessons? I”m not sure where this fits in a 80 minute period (normal times) vs. 35 min live and 40 off-line (now). I really want to try it but not sure how to begin. And how does a choice board fit into this?

    • Hi Christine,

      Playlists provide a sequence of learning activities that move students toward specific learning objectives. When I used playlists in a 90-minute class, students would self-pace through them as I pulled individual students or groups of students for reteaching, real-time feedback, or conferencing. Alternatively, I would make the playlist a focus of an online station in a station rotation. If you use them in your current mode, students could self-pace through their playlists and you can use your “live” time to support their progress.

      Take care.

  7. For any teachers using OneNote class notebooks, I’ve found it to be the perfect way to implement playlists. It allows you to embed videos and attach files, you can distribute the playlists to groups of students so that assigning a differentiated playlist is simple, and you can even place chechkboxes next to each activity so that students – and you – can see their progress on the playlist in real time.

    • Hello Tyler,
      Thanks so much for this recommendation. I have been using OneNote class notebooks, but not in a consistent way. I definitely want to try this out!!!

      If you could send me an example of a playlist in Classnote book I would really appreciate it.
      You can connect with me on Twitter @CalebPahl

  8. This post has been super helpful and I am hoping to try it out with my 8th grade students and then other middle school classes soon!

  9. Thanks for this great blog post! Have you found any digital platforms for students to be able to put their name on the list for conferring time with the teacher? This would be especially helpful for our hybrid model when we are teaching student both in the classroom and remotely at the same time. Our district uses Schoology and Office 365 products. Thanks!

  10. Playlists were my first approach to blended learning strategies last year. It took lots of time creating the first one but it was worth the while. Now we are all back at school and I keep using them. The best part of them is all the formative assessment they provide and the fact that my 9th grade students love the agency playlists offer.

  11. Hi Catlin,
    I love everything about the playlist, except keeping track of student progress. Any idea how we could utilize Google Classroom to keep track of submissions?

    Thank you!!

    • Hi Ami,

      I have not used Google Classroom to track submissions. Instead, I create a corresponding spreadsheet for each playlist. In the first column, I have each student’s name. Then I label each subsequent column with a learning task from the playlist in order from left to right. As they make progress through the playlist, we meet for Tucker time or their teacher check-in. During these check-ins, we review their progress and make the necessary adjustments to their playlist, I mark what they’ve completed on the spreadsheet and make any necessary notes to capture what we discussed. It worked well for me, but I was not trying to grade each learning activity as some were designed to be practice, review, or work toward a finished product that would be assessed.

      I hope that is helpful. If others have found a way to use Google Classroom to simplify this process, hopefully, they will chime in!

      Take care.

  12. Hey Catlin!
    My team and I love your work and we are currently trying to help teachers understand a choice board vs. a playlist. What do you feel like is the biggest difference between the two formats? Would you say a playlist is more data driven and a choice board gives more variety in modalities of the learning?

  13. I like the idea of the playlist, but it my be hard to implement with my class of preschoolers and kindergartners

  14. Hi Catlin!

    I am reading your book “Balance with Blended Learning” and am implementing playlists as part of my professional growth plan this year. My district has a huge focus on collaborative learning and I was wondering how you would go about making a playlist collaborative.

    • Hi Cody,

      You have a couple of options. First, you can include collaborative tasks in the playlist and use a public tracker (where students identify where they are in the playlist on a physical or digital tracking system) to raise awareness about who is also at a collaborative task and needs a partner or group to work with. Alternatively, you can pair students up for a playlist or even create a playlist team who work through the playlist together. A playlist partner or team encourages peer support and collaboration.

      I hope that is helpful!

      Take care.

  15. The opportunity for pacing and choice is important for all learners. One size fits all is just not the norm! The availability of different resources and activities aligned to a specific outcome allows for students to gain the same knowledge in a uniquely engaging way. I can see this transforming collaboration as each student may address the same content from a different perspective. I will definitely work with departments to discover how we can incorporate these opportunities into our curriculum.

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