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 (read more about it here) 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

More Posts - Website

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.

More Posts

Why It Seems Like Your Students Can’t Write — Stephanie White

Whenever I talk with instructors here about how my job is to support them in their writing and communication instruction, I hear some version of the same response: “My students are brilliant, but they can’t write a sentence to save their lives!” No matter whom I’m talking to, regardless of discipline, job title, teaching experience, linguistic background, educational background, or teaching load, nearly everyone has the same anxieties around the role of communication in their courses. But I’m always glad to have the chance to talk about these concerns. If you’re one of those instructors I’ve talked with about teaching writing and communication in your discipline, you’ve probably seen my eyes light up as I eagerly launch into my spiel about the research on teaching writing and communication across the curriculum.

You: “My students are smart, but they can’t write!” Continue reading Why It Seems Like Your Students Can’t Write — Stephanie White

Stephanie White

Stephanie White

Stephanie White is an Instructional Developer at the UWaterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence, where she focuses on TA Training and Writing Support. In addition to helping run CTE’s certificate programs for graduate students and supervising graduate-student TA Workshop Facilitators, she teaches workshops for faculty and staff on designing effective written assignments, consults one-to-one with instructors in any discipline about their written assignments, serves on committees and working groups about communications outcomes at UWaterloo, develops resources about Writing and Communication Across the Curriculum at UWaterloo, and consults with instructors on training TAs in their departments.

More Posts

Reflecting on Teaching Culture – Kristin Brown

(Photo by Peter Wolf, Queen’s University)

After working in graduate student programming at CTE for the past three years, this term I collaborated with Donna Ellis, CTE Director, on a SSHRC-funded project involving eight other Canadian universities. The project is developing and validating survey tools (the Teaching Culture Perception Survey) to measure indicators of institutional teaching culture. You can find out more about the project here.

The surveys have been conducted at four institutions over the past few Continue reading Reflecting on Teaching Culture – Kristin Brown

Kristin Brown

Kristin Brown

Kristin is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Teaching Excellence and a PhD Candidate in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. She previously worked at CTE as a Graduate Instructional Developer.

More Posts

A case study of a new approach to a blended course — Meagan Troop, Centre for Extended Learning

Musical scoreI am an Online Learning Consultant (OLC) at the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo. As OLCs we pride ourselves on a scholarly approach to course design and, as such, 20% of my time is allotted to research. One of the research projects that I began in Winter 2016 is a case study examination of a blended learning opportunity jointly offered by Wilfrid Laurier University and UOIT. In this case, not only did I have the opportunity to conduct research, but also to teach and contribute design changes to the course being researched. Both the research and teaching dimensions of this experience have been invaluable, greatly enhancing my perspective as an instructional designer. Continue reading A case study of a new approach to a blended course — Meagan Troop, Centre for Extended Learning

Looking Beyond the Evidence: What’s Your Story? — Donna Ellis, Director of the Centre for Teaching Excellence

Face covered with data
Have you ever felt overwhelmed?  I’m sitting at my computer on a late November afternoon contemplating what I have taken away from two recent events: a provincial symposium on assessing learning outcomes and an international conference for educational developers on transformative relationships in relation to fostering cultures of deep learning.

I attended numerous sessions and overall I came away with a sense of what I call “data overwhelmosis”. We have more data and more evidence available to us than ever before in higher education.  We have software to help us identify specific learning outcomes and each student’s level of achievement for each outcome. We have online templates for course syllabi that generate maps of the learning outcomes for an entire program’s curriculum. We can use learning analytics and data analytics to monitor students’ progress (or failure).  We can do social network analyses to show how we connect to one another, how information flows within a unit or across an entire institution (or beyond).  We know what educational development practices have empirical backing. The list goes on.  My point is that it’s clear that we can capture almost anything. We can collate massive amounts of data and generate evidence for (or against) almost anything you can imagine. But to what end? What’s the purpose? And what’s the overarching plan?

We’ve talked a lot about these questions as part of devising and implementing our Centre’s assessment plan as well as our upcoming external review.  Just because we can get data doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  How much is enough? What will we do with what we collect?  Why will it matter?  Data collection takes time and effort.  We know this from any research project we have undertaken.  In our line of work, any time that we ask our staff to input data about their work, this is time not spent working with a client.  There has to be a good reason to ask staff members to spend time in this way.  This is where the role of questions becomes critical.

For research projects, we determine research questions.  We did the same when devising our assessment plan.  These questions guide our every move:  our methodological decisions, the types of data we need, the appropriate analysis methods, and the way we write up our results.  The questions enable us to select the data that will help us determine answers, and these limited data become the evidence for our conclusions.  We’ve realized that we don’t need every piece of data that we could collect – just the data that are relevant to the questions.  This is a freeing revelation.

But it doesn’t end there.  The evidence isn’t enough.  We need to find the story.  What does the evidence mean?  How will it affect what we do tomorrow or in the next five years?  I worry that higher education in general – and educational development specifically – is getting bogged down in the weeds and not stepping back to identify what those weeds are telling us.  The examples that I noted in the second paragraph help to illuminate the issue.  But what are we overlooking?  Which way is the wind blowing now and in the future?  Our questions create important frames to make data manageable and even meaningful, but thinking about how to tell the story of the evidence seems the most crucial of all to me.

In the next few months, we will be aiming to tell the story of CTE in our self-study, which will extend far beyond what we convey in our annual reports.  We will be analyzing existing relevant data and collecting new data as needed to fill perceived gaps.  We will be striving to ensure that we have sufficient information to assist our external reviewers in addressing the questions set in the Terms of Reference for the review.  But from all of this, what we most need is to tell our story and listen to what it is telling us.  I’m not entirely sure what we’ll hear, but I am very intrigued by what will emerge.  The evidence is critical, but we need to move beyond it to better understand where we are and where we’re going.

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

More Posts - Website

Course Design Broke my Brain – Crystal Tse

Aaron Silvers Attribution

I took Course Design Fundamentals a few weeks ago, and it broke my brain – in a good way! I have taught before, but this was a great opportunity for me to revisit the course that I’ve been teaching for the past few years from a fresh perspective.

Here are a couple of my take-aways from this workshop that lays out the best practices for course design:

  • Alignment, alignment, alignment – between the intended learning outcomes for your students in the course, the course activities, and the assessment of students’ learning. It was great to have this connection made explicit. However, it was also a jarring experience as some of the concepts I wanted my students to learn were not made explicit in the activities the students engaged in. Time to remedy that!
  • Concept maps for your course are tough to make! I had never created one before for my course and was at a loss at first of how to structure it and what the main concepts I wanted my students to get out of my course. A bit of brainstorming and lots of sticky notes later, I finally fleshed out the main concepts. Two of them were actually not about course content. One was about helping first year students transition to university life (e.g., coping with stress effectively, how to study and take tests). I spend my first lecture telling students about my own experiences as a first year student – that it’s difficult and stressful, but that this stress was temporary and would soon be overcome. I revisit this point by telling stories of my own failures and successes, talking about healthy living, and checking in with students throughout the term. Another way to help with students’ transition is to build community in your classroom so students have support networks they can draw on in times of stress and uncertainty.
  • The other concept was to encourage metacognitive skills (i.e., how to encourage students to reflect and think about their own learning). I do different lecture wrappers (e.g., one minute summaries where students spend a minute writing about the main take-away from the class and what questions they still have that can be addressed in the next class). CTE has a great tipsheet on strategies you can use to encourage self-regulation in students’ learning that can be quick and don’t require a complete overhaul of your course. There are also many evidence-based strategies based on psychological research that can help students study more effectively and engage in more critical thinking.
  • Thinking more about incorporating students’ own experiences into the course in addition to my own perspective. Students come with a wealth of prior knowledge and life experiences that can be drawn on. In the past I have solicited students’ anonymous comments about a topic in the course (especially one that can be particularly controversial or sensitive) prior to class so they are ready for discussion. I’m excited to do this more!


Image provided by Aaron Silvers under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

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.

More Posts