Transitioning between on-campus and online learning environments, and its effect on student learning

My own disciplinary background is in second language development, and specifically, German language learning. Over the last decade or so, as online and blended learning has proliferated, languages have sought ought means by which to teach a foreign language online using educational technology. This may seem like a difficult task – how do you teach a language when the very act of speaking the language and practicing pronunciation is challenging, if not outright impossible. And indeed, this is a challenge. As learning management systems develop and improve, this challenge has been circumvented to some extent by at least allowing asynchronous communication between learners to occur, but nevertheless, the reality is that online language learning is often seen to be at a disadvantage compared to on-campus, traditional classroom-based language learning.

With this in mind, Mat Schulze, Professor in Germanic and Slavic Studies, Sara Marsh, MA student in Germanic and Slavic Studies, and myself undertook a research study as part of a LITE grant to investigate how transitioning between online and on-campus language learning environments may impact student learning. Online learning is no longer just for students who are physically not on-campus; students may be on a co-op term and want to continue their studies, or they may find their schedules already packed and want to alleviate things a bit. Now more than ever, students have a real choice as to how they want to learn, and especially with introductory and intermediate German language courses (specifically GER 101, GER 102, GER 201, and GER 202) they can take these either on-campus or online and the content is largely the same, although activities and assessments vary to some degree.

By looking at enrollment and grade data from the past decade of German language learners at the University of Waterloo (n=6920), as well as surveying (n=157) and interviewing (n=24) current students enrolled in German language courses, we were able to capture learning trajectories of students and determine what happens to learners who transition between learning environments as they progress through the German language program, as well as general attitudes that language learners have of on-campus and online language learning.

Here are some of our data-driven findings:

  • Of the 5906 students who took GER 101, 102, and 201, 44% took it online
    • Many students are benefitting from taking German language courses online
  • Only one third of students who take GER 101 continue on to take GER 102
  • Learners who elect to only take one language course to fulfill breadth requirements are attracted to online course offerings over their on-campus equivalents
    • Students tend to believe that the online course would be easier than the on-campus version
  • Most students enrolled in the German language program take their language courses in the same environment (74.5%)
    • Therefore 25.5% of language learners learn through a combination of online and on-campus language learning environments
  • Online students are more likely to continue learning in the same environment
    • This is again likely due to the perceived notion that online courses are easier than the on-campus equivalent

Reading more into our data, we found the following as well:

  • Both online and on-campus language courses prepared students sufficiently for the subsequent German language course
  • Most students however held negative or ambivalent views of online learning, feeling it is inferior to the on-campus classroom environment
    • Yet these views primarily come from students who have never taken an online language course
  • Students who tend to take both online and on-campus language courses are more motivated language learners
    • They seek out any opportunity to continue studying German, even if it means it is done in the online learning environment as to avoid having a one or two-term gap between courses
  • Perhaps more importantly, students with higher motivation to continue tend to be more successful, and students with higher performance and better grades are more likely to continue studying languages

Three additional themes emerged:

  • Students desire personal contact, and tend to believe that online interaction was NOT personal contact
    • Communicative interaction is being conceptualized as only spoken or face-to-face, and although there is not an overwhelming amount of one-on-one instructor to student interaction in the on-campus learning environment, it is idolized
  • Feedback in the online environment was found lacking or insufficient due to delays, or believed to not exist at all
    • Delays in feedback received in-class were not brought up, seemingly considered acceptable as opposed to similar delays online
  • Self-regulation of learning and motivation impeded learners’ beliefs about their ability to succeed in the online environment
    • Completing tasks and assignments at the last minute may have caused learners to believe they were not learning as successfully as in the on-campus classroom

Of great interest as well were what the students themselves thought about transitioning between online and on-campus learning environments. Students who went from an online to on-campus course focused on shifts in workload and the social interaction that accompanied an in-class learning context. Interestingly, none of the learners who were interviewed discussed anxiety about switching to on-campus instruction or felt that it affected their learning (either negatively or positively).

What does this all mean? Too few students learn in both environments, and there may in fact be some benefits to do so. Chief among these is the natural focus that each environment places on the type of learning that occurs. In the on-campus environment, the spoken language receives ample attention, but the online environment focuses so much on written communication that it can be incredibly beneficial to dedicate an entire course to the online environment. We also need to invest in creating sustainable, synchronous communication channels available and fully integrated into the online course curriculum in order to address the perceived deficiencies with online language learning. Finally, although these results are specific to the German language learning context, we believe these results are transferable to other language programs when deciding how best to offer online language courses in conjunction with traditional on-campus offerings.

Kyle Scholz

Faculty of Arts and University Colleges Liaison

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From crisis to crisis: teaching in challenging times

A stressed out figure with head on desk surrounded by books
Bonhomme Stressed

I don’t know if it’s some kind of confirmation bias as I think about all the people around me, but this past term has seemed much more stressful for many staff, faculty, and students on campus. Including me! Burnout among students and instructors seems more prevalent than in prior terms.

I suspect that it may have something to do with uncertainties and the erosion of rights on every front as we all live through the (very real) simulacrum that is the 45th U.S. President right now, coupled with the ways in which media outlets and social media amplify certain kinds of story.

There are things that happen in the world over which we have no control, but that are part of an increasingly invasive news cycle. Even the weather network seems in constant panic mode with “Alerts” and “Special Statements” that, when opened, say little more than that typical seasonal weather is about to happen.

In the face of events that make the news ticker and get amplified by friends and family, it is often difficult to know what and what not to do in the classroom. Faculty have expressed to me a deep sense of care about how they themselves, and how their students, can best handle daily news of crises. One of the most cited web-based resources out there is a Vanderbilt University guide called Teaching in Times of Crisis. Originally written in 2001, after 9-11, it was updated by Nancy Chick in 2013.

The gist of this well-researched piece is that we should say *something* about a crisis event in class, but we should say it while also referring students (and ourselves I think!) to available resources. I strongly encourage people to spend some time reading this piece; it’s helped a lot of us to address things head-on in classes rather than ignoring the “elephant in the room.” These crises may be local or global — everything from bombings to stories about sexual assault, from school shootings to the removal of same-sex marriage rights.

I wonder, too, whether this is something that is mainly a question for people in social science, environmental or health studies, or arts disciplines, or whether colleagues teaching large first year classes in, say, Engineering or Physics or Math also think about this stuff? In my experience, yes, but it’s not as directly relevant to the topic of the week (as it may well be in my Women’s Studies first-year lecture).

trevorholmes

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in STEM Education- Mahmoud A. Allam

Classroom

As part of the CUT program that I have recently completed, I was required to conduct a research project on university teaching. I decided to do my research on an effective interactive teaching/learning method. The first thought that came to my mind was to reflect on my own learning: what is the most effective way for me to learn something new? Thinking back to my undergraduate studies in Engineering, I recalled that my most enjoyable learning experience was the senior-year capstone project, where we were given a real-world problem, and we had to work in groups to come up with a design that fulfills all the project requirements. It was my first time to realize that authentic projects were not as simple as well-structured problems in textbooks. Although it was a challenging experience with all the practical obstacles that we often encountered, it was the most effective way to get hands-on experience on many concepts that we had to put together to successfully achieve our goal. Even by reflecting on my past MSc and current PhD research works, I came to realize that researchers follow almost the same approach to learn new concepts and skills to complete their research – we face a problem, we self-study and learn until we reach a solution. My conclusion after a brief research was that one of the most effective teaching/learning philosophies, especially in STEM disciplines, was “Learning by Doing”, which encompasses Project-Based Learning. So, here I started asking myself questions: can we, university teachers, embrace similar strategies in teaching most (or all) our subjects instead of limiting it to upper-year subjects? how can we gradually train our students to be independent thinkers rather than lecturing them? what frameworks do exist for this type of teaching, and how to implement them? Finally and most importantly, are these methods really effective, or is it just my personal thought/experience?

I started my research on Project-Based Learning, and surprisingly ended up researching its “sibling”, Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching method that was first introduced in medical education where the students work in groups to solve ill-structured, open-ended, and authentic (i.e., real-world) problems. In this approach, the whole subject is structured as a set of problems that cover different topics of the course. The instructor here acts more like a facilitator than a lecturer. He/she is primarily responsible for guiding the students rather than teaching them, while the students mostly self-teach the material. To better understand the whole process of PBL, let’s have a look at the the following chart.

When introducing a new problem in a session, the facilitator provides the problem statement to a group of learners (5-10 students), and helps them Identify the Problem. Next, the facilitator lets them brainstorm to Generate Hypotheses on the possible causes of the problem and to think about Possible Mechanisms to solve it. The learners from this point can Identify their Learning Issues (i.e., what they need to learn and how to learn it). At this point, the facilitator’s role is to make sure that the learners are on the right track, but not to identify the learning goals for them. As the session ends, the students begin their journey of exploring the available resources (e.g., textbooks, online resources … etc.) to Self Study the subject. The group of learners meet with the tutor again to Re-evaluate and Apply their New Knowledge: have they acquired enough knowledge to solve the problem? were their initial hypotheses correct and/or complete? are there more learning issues they were not aware of? Finally, the students are given a chance to Asses and Reflect on their Learning. They should give each other feedback about their contributions to learning, and evaluate the group work. The cycle is then repeated as the learners generate new hypotheses about the problem with the new acquired knowledge and skills until they finally achieve a solution, or sometimes many possible solutions. As we can see, the process does not include lectures at all; it is a fully student-centered method.

Although the original definition of PBL comprises complete “self-directedness” of learners and “ill-structuredness” of problems, instructors have often adopted different versions of PBL that better suit their subjects and teaching goals. For instance, Project-Based Learning is considered one form of PBL where problems are partially well-structured and learning is partially self-led and partially instructor-led. Other methods such as Case-Based Learning and Anchored Instruction also lie under the big umbrella of PBL. In general, PBL has gone a long way in medical education. It is, however, not often implemented in STEM disciplines even though it has proved effective by those who have applied it. I believe that the challenges associated with such an advanced method, such as the students’ resistance, shortage of resources, and lack of experience with the method, are still a burden against wider application of PBL in STEM schools. However, if we look at the other side, the potential benefits of this method can outweigh its challenges. Who wouldn’t want STEM graduates who possess highly developed communication, teamwork, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills? Who wouldn’t want self-directed students with deep and long-lasting knowledge? Who wouldn’t want learners that have acquired hands-on experience for their years of university education?

After researching the method and considering its various aspects, I went back to  reflect on my very first questions. Can we implement this philosophy in most (if not all) STEM subjects? Yes, we can; instructors have already done that in many courses at different levels. How can we teach our students to be independent learners? Just let them practice self-directed learning, but it takes patience and lots of guidance at the beginning from their instructors. What frameworks to use to attain that? We are lucky that hundreds of people have already developed, experimented, and reported numerous teaching approaches that follow the same philosophy. The PBL approach explained above is just a glimpse of one approach. All we need to do is to merely research and find the most appropriate strategy for our subjects and students. My last question was: are these methods really helpful? Well, the research results have been generally positive and encouraging in that regard. So, I have personally decided to apply some sort of PBL in my next teaching opportunity. It may take more work, but I strongly believe it is worth the extra effort.

Top image provided by Ohio University Libraries under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

mallam

mallam

Mahmoud is a Graduate instructional Developer at the CTE where he facilitates workshops and microteaching sessions as part of the Fundamentals of University Teaching program. He occasionally conducts teaching observations to give feedback to his fellow graduate students on their teaching skills. He is also a PhD Candidate at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering where he is doing research on the integration of renewable energy resources into electricity grids.

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Debunking the Learning Styles Myth – Crystal Tse

Photo of a person's brain outlined into aidfferent sections
Image provided by William Creswell under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Franz Josef Gall was a neuroscientist in the 1700s who developed phrenology, a field that attributed specific mental functions to different parts of the brain (i.e., that certain bumps on a person’s head would indicate their personality traits). This field has since then been widely discredited as pseudoscience. It is often comforting to be able to categorize things and put people into neat boxes, and phrenology is one example of this tendency. Learning styles is another example.

The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning the work best for them. There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report on learning styles state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can certainly have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigorous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style. In a recent study, Rogowsky and colleagues conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis and found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught – learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course, for example, requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection!

Instead of fixating on learning styles, I recommend we instead focus on engaging our learners in and outside the class (by using active learning strategies where appropriate – there is good evidence that active learning benefits learners in STEM classrooms, for example). As instructors we can also try vary our teaching methods so all students have a way into the material. Lastly, learning doesn’t always have to feel easy – research from growth mindsets shows us that feeling challenged and failure itself is important for students’ learning and growth.

Crystal Tse

Crystal Tse

Crystal is the Educational Research Associate at the CTE where she contributes to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning work and to program evaluation. She received her PhD in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, where her research involved applying psychological theory to inform evidence-based interventions that address different social issues.

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Why Education is important to me – Haroon Pervez

BirdsAs I near the end of my post-secondary education, I find it fitting that I reflect on my past years at the University of Waterloo and ask “why am I doing this?” and “is it worth it?” Is the investment of pursing this abstract concept of “education” worth the headaches, stress, and doubt that comes along with it?

Though often taken for granted, elementary school and high school have taught most people how to function in everyday society. It taught us how to read, write, communicate and socialize with the people around us. It allowed us to explore (to some degree) subjects that we would learn to love or despise completely. But one thing that I have noticed, for me at least, was that it felt forced. It was something that we HAD to do, and for good reason. Yet at the end of grade 12, the pressure to pursue further education was somewhat lifted. Students now had a choice to continue to learn or just sit at home on the couch all day (something I wouldn’t advise).

I found it interesting that I felt so troubled at the idea of me wasting my time away sitting on a couch. Why was I so motivated to continue to learn and educate myself?

Mohamed Reda, in an article called “Top 10 Reasons why Education is Extremely Important”, mentions some interesting points as to why many of us dedicate so much time into continuing to educate ourselves, even after we have finished formal schooling. I won’t touch upon all the points he lists, but I’ll mention some points that resonated with me and helped me realize why I want to continue educating myself.

To start, the reason I continue to educate myself is to secure a good and happy future. To be able to do the things I want in life, I must first learn how to do them. Whether it’s wanting to become a professor or an entrepreneur, I must actively learn the necessary steps to achieve these goals. Educating myself gives me the option to choose to do what I like rather than being forced to do something else.

Education can also help when looking at finances. As the entrepreneur Tai Lopez loves to say, “the more you learn, the more you earn.” By educating myself, it opens up the possibility of me making a lot of money in the profession I choose. But even if I don’t pursue professions that make hundreds of thousands of dollars, by learning how to manage money effectively, I can still live life comfortably while doing the things I love.

Lastly, the reason why I want to continue educating myself is to bring about positive change in the world. It can be as simple as teaching others about love, equality, and respect or as complex as ending a war, by learning about these problems, it gives me the ability to act upon them. If we all follow the pattern of learning important topics, then teaching others about it in a positive manner, I believe we can change the world for the better.

Without going into too much detail, those are the main reasons that keep me motivated to continue to educate myself. With a lot of thought, I’ve realized that continuing to educate myself is worth all the trouble that comes with it.

Others may have a different ideas of why they think education is or is not important but I can confidently say that knowledge is an extremely powerful tool. You can educate yourself through formal schooling or even through the internet, there are many resources for us to access! But whether it’s learning the basic skills of how to survive as adults in the world, or finding a cure to cancer, education is key.

As you go on with your day, I challenge you to think about the reasons why you choose to continue or not continue to educate yourself! I’d love to hear about it.

Black History and the Education System – Carlton Darby

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Happy (belated) Black History Month! It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s already March when it just felt like yesterday I began my first co-op term at the Centre for Teaching Excellence. I guess time flies when you’re having fun! But as my second term of studies gets closer and closer, I reflect on my life in education, and consequently powerful quotes like this one here by Nelson Mandela. At the same time, however, I try to fathom how quickly yet another Black History Month has gone by. So with these two thoughts in my head, they come together to form the big question that many people have already asked: “Why don’t we teach more black history in our education system?”

As a young man of a Jamaican background that has received his entire education in the Canadian school system, I think about this question often and how it speaks to my experience with learning about black history in school. I vividly recall a lesson in my Grade 10 history class where we read a chapter about World War II. As I flipped through the plethora of pages that described the war, I noticed that a couple of pages were dedicated to a black Canadian soldier that made notable contributions to the war effort (I wish I could remember his name). But that was it. Only two pages of black history mentioned within the entire story of World War II. Now to be fair, since that class was a while back there could have been other parts in that textbook that mentioned black history and the history of other minorities which I may have missed, or just simply don’t remember. But I think there’s something to be said to the fact that from my Grade 10 history textbook, the only memory I have of it commemorating black history in Canada was a two-page profile on one individual.

Even when I think about black history and education on a larger scale – outside of Canada – up until this past year my knowledge only went as far as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and other widely-known black historical figures that were mentioned year after year (but my deepest respect has always gone out to these individuals and their contributions to black history). My knowledge of black history didn’t really get the opportunity to truly evolve and develop.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no historian and I’m definitely not trying to undermine the same education system that has equipped me and so many others with endless opportunities to succeed (I think that’s a misconception many people have when a topic like this is brought up). But I just think that there’s so much more students deserve to learn when it comes to how black individuals have contributed to the history that has led to present day. Did you know that African-American inventor Garrett Morgan innovated the traffic light? (Check out “Garrett Morgan”) Or that the richest man in all of history is thought to be King Musa Keita I, an African man that ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century? (Check out “King Musa”) I just found out about King Musa last week. But there’s a sense of empowerment and enlightenment that comes along with knowing that the story of black history is much larger than we think it is – a story the precedes slavery and goes beyond the big names we always hear about.

I felt this empowerment only after reading about a couple of individuals. Imagine how a whole classroom or a whole school would feel if they regularly learned about these people in a school year? Imagine the potential that would grow inside of them, the things that they would then know they can accomplish. This same empowerment translates to the history of all minorities, for all races to benefit from.

But as good as the idea sounds to incorporate more of the history of minorities into our education system, it faces the opposition which says that there simply isn’t enough resources (ie. time, money and curriculum space) to incorporate such material. Now this is a very reasonable and fair point to make. I can definitely see how it can be a challenge to introduce any new material into a curriculum that’s already trying to work with the material that’s currently being used. But at the same time I think it’s easy to say we don’t have enough of something when the task placed before us is challenging. Consider a father whose son has a championship soccer game coming up. Now the father’s weekly schedule may make him feel justified in saying that he doesn’t have enough time to go and watch the game. But because he knows the game means so much to his son, he accommodates and makes the time to go watch his soccer game. This isn’t to say that everyone has the resources to do anything and everything regardless of how limited you are, but I think we can all agree that if you are truly passionate enough to see something happen, you will make the time and generate the resources necessary to make it happen. If we all adopted a mentality like this, think of all the amazing things we would accomplish that we never thought was possible. Why did it not seem possible before? Because we convinced ourselves that we didn’t have enough resources to accomplish the task.

Check out this CBC news report called “Teaching Black History in Canada”, as they cover the benefits and challenges an Ontario teacher faces with her new black history course.

Again, I’m no expert on the school system, but I think understanding the student perspective on issues such as this is imperative towards creating a meaningful solution. This solution won’t come overnight – it may take years of trial and error to bring a feasible plan to fruition in the classroom. But it’s important to realize – especially in 2017 – that incorporating this history into our education system not only helps us understand where we are coming from, but where we are truly going.

On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Bassoon reeds in cupI could write this blog post about all the ways music is beneficial to us as learners and teachers – the positive effects it has on our standardized test performance, memory, motor, communication and analytical skills. I could continue that conversation and provide the dismal array of stats on the decline of public school funding for art programs across multiple countries and how this is a really bad idea.

Or I could talk about the real reason music is important – it is profoundly human, universal and magical and should not be defended solely because it is good for something other than simply. being. music. Continue reading On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova