Online Learning and Concept Heavy Courses

Today I went to a seminar on using blogs in the classroom.  Upon reflection during the course, I decided to start this blog to discuss some of my concepts and worries about teaching in the digital age.  So, for this reflection, I wanted to talk about a topic that came up during the seminar: critical course content in foundational classes.

To put this in perspective, I teach courses in general biology, microbiology and genetics.  These subjects have been information rich for decades, but in the last fifteen years, our understanding of these subjects has grown so deep that there is now information overload.  The textbooks for an introductory majors class are now huge, and the amount of detail staggering.  In a standard lecture format, there is just too much information to cover.  I started using online quizzes around seven years ago to engage students in working outside of class on their knowledge base before they came to class to talk about a topic.  It worked, but not consistently.  I broadened the question databases (up to about 200 questions per quiz) and put in some really detailed and hard questions.  The goal was to have the students take the quiz multiple time and have to reference the textbook to answer some of the questions (as a note, the students got 30 questions each time and they received a random set of questions each time).  I even told them that they could work together to answer questions.  Since these quizzes were part of their grade, they complied, and it became clear that more students were coming to class prepared to talk about a given topic.

The goal is not to memorize the textbook, but to actually read it in a meaningful way.  I am under no illusion that students will retain all of the information that they are exposed to, but they will remember something.  The three exposure rule is something I strongly accept; basically that it takes at minimum three exposures to new material before you begin to build long-term neural links.  Reading is one exposure, the quiz is the second, and discussion in class becomes the third.  A student recently told me that they wished I would give the quiz after the in class session, because they understood the material so much more after the class.  My question back to him was “would you have understood so much after our discussion if you had not first struggled with the information?”  As I knew it would, my response stumped him.  I don’t think he realized that all the time he was sitting with the information, and working on the quiz, he was learning.

Now I am wondering how to push further, to really encourage students to become active participants in the learning experience, to own their learning opportunities.  So, my next transition is to see if I can get them involved in network, or social, learning systems.  Ultimately though, my question is how do I ultimately assess their learning?  The restraint is that I am responsible for teaching the principles of cell and molecular biology to the students.  I say teach, but I strongly feel that my actual role is as a mentor, helping them to learn how to filter information, build a knowledge base, and use that knowledge base.  But these students have to have a common knowledge base by the time they leave my class (the core curriculum of the course).   How do I encourage them to learn these concepts without figuratively standing over them with a bat beating the information into their heads?

My gut response is that I have to step back and realize that I can not force them to learn.  Yes, I can set an exam over a set of material to assess their knowledge, and the student can cramp facts into the head the night before in an attempt to pass the test, but I can not force them to learn the material.  We come back to the mentor concept here.   I’ve actually lowered the class percentage of my labs, and instead concentrate on smaller assignments, especially small written assignments.  But all of these are assessed.  They get grades for these assignments.  Can they be encouraged to write, or blog, about topics if there is no grade?  Again, I can’t force them to learn.  So, now I am working on how to encourage them to learn.





~ by bioramaxwell on September 14, 2011.

2 Responses to “Online Learning and Concept Heavy Courses”

  1. Hi Max (?), nice picture of your way of teaching.
    I wonder if students have a useful knowledge of learning? Most students just do what they are used to do and do not know why. Someone should explain the good practices of learning. NOt as a lesson in learning, but the way you did with this student you mentioned. Just every teacher should make students aware of better learning practices, next to their ordinary subject of teaching.
    Did you ever read ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”? The teacher in the book did not give grades and that worked somehow.
    regards Jaap

  2. Hi Bioramaxell,

    I wanted to respond to your efforts in motivating your students, by letting you know about my story as far as blogging is concerned.

    I started my first blog when I was studying with the Open University UK. It was suggested as an activity in one of chapters on technology. I kept it private and used it randomly, mainly to nag myself and as a reminder of important chapters to revisit and so on. Others were using their blogs progressively as a learning tool and socially to connect. I couldn’t fathom how they found the time to maintain a commitment. Also the course didn’t lend itself to blogging. The chapters covered were too long-winded and too informative to blog in the way I’m doing now. The idea was however introduced subtly that a learning diary would help with learning retention of the topics covered (hence the name of my blog).

    Here is what I learnt from the experience. First of all, the content being taught should have a scope that lends itself to blogging. It has to be thought provoking, in that it asks you your experience or tells you how to engage with the content. Most importantly the content/chapter/topic shouldn’t be too long. Setting up a group might help in giving students a sounding board for their blogs and help with coping with learning in an isolated environment. Having fun is the key to learning. Most of all it is the educator and their engagement that make all the difference. As I student one of my professors always responded within 24/48 hours and committed to the promise of being there “ALWAYS”. We were using forums to clear up any doubts about the course-ware (we can now use twitter). That was when the peer group set up helped because any silly questions got answered with the educator only moderating.

    Finally my biggest motivation for blogging was getting the educator’s nod and then knowing I was on the right track. I still do that on my blog by inviting our guest presenters each week to read the blog and comment. Some do, others don’t. The ones that do give me the motivation to continue on my path of learning with their input and suggestions.

    Yours is not an easy task but one worth pursuing. Working on being a mentor will truly engage your students in the long run and make all the difference in their learning progression/retention.

    Good luck

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