Publishing SoTL Work in Unusual Places – Jane Holbrook

Although it’s tempting to blog about the Royal Wedding this morning (yes, I did get up and rush down the street to watch the event with a group of “girls” , young and old), I’m instead going to carry out  some advice from the recent Opportunities and New Directions Conference, which was to share our research in unusual ways – this is pretty unusual for me  so here goes ….

I displayed my poster “What drives students’ preferences for face-to-face, online or blended courses?” at this event on Wednesday and had some good conversations with other participants. The poster describes some student feedback that was gathered through an end of term questionnaire that I was using to help instructors evaluate activities in five blended courses last fall. The students who responded to the questionnaire were all on campus, fulltime students in Soc 101, Earth 235, Psych 340, Cive 292 and Enve 292. The students were primarily Arts, Science and Engineering students in 1st, 2nd and  3rd year, aged 23 and under.  They were asked to choose which type of course they preferred: face-to-face courses with no online activities; fully online courses with no face-to-face activities; courses that have both online and face-to-face activities; or if their preference depends on the discipline of the course being taken; or on the level of the course being taken. They were asked to explain their choice.

The responses fell into three main categories with about 36% choosing courses that have both online and face-to-face activities, 32% choosing that their preference depends on the discipline of the course being taken and 26% choosing face-to-face courses with no online activities, (n=298). What were their reasons for these choices and what can we learn from their responses?

Those who chose courses with both online and face-to-face activities focussed on the usefulness of the online tools and the flexibility of time and pace of learning (including repeatability of online lectures) and how this has a positive impact on their learning. Half of them articulated how both environments contribute to their learning in some way, but the face-to-face environment was singled out as the preferred environment for asking questions because the answers are immediate.

Those whose preference was dependent on the discipline of the course being taken commented that they prefer face-to-face courses in their own discipline, but that online elements or online courses are useful in disciplines other than their own. Fifty percent commented that they prefer to learn mathematics in a face-to-face environment. A few respondents said that difficult concepts in their own field were better learned online through simulations.

The face-to-face course advocates communicated that, for them, the instructor’s presence in the classroom is important and they want to be in the classroom while the instructor presents concepts and solves problems, answers their questions, emphasises important concepts and communicates information about assessments. They believe that being with the instructor increases their understanding and retention of concepts. They also appreciate the ease of social interactions and communication with the instructor and peers in the classroom. Their comments clearly conveyed that asking questions and getting answers quickly is key for them. Another common theme was that these students perceive that the online environment has a negative impact on their motivation to learn and on their attention span.

This is by no means  a “rigorous” research project,  it’s more of a fishing expedition for next questions. This feedback could be the springboard for formulating interesting research questions. For instance, what is the optimal mix of face-to-face, blended and fully online courses in undergraduate programs? Which courses in a program might be most effectively developed as blended or fully online courses? How can we help students develop online learning skills;  skills they will surely need during co-op terms, in graduate school, or for life-long learning in their professional and private  lives?  What are the most effective ways to design online and blended courses that provide the modelling of conceptual thinking and problem solving for students who are at the “dualistic thinking” stage of development? How do synchronous question and answer opportunities, both in the face-to-face classroom and online, impact learning?  What are the perceived barriers to learning Math online;  do we need to design online math-based courses differently?

Some would argue that students don’t know “what’s good for them” or what’s best for their learning,  but I think that we do need to understand their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of different learning environments and to use this information to improve learning designs and help them become effective and engaged learners in a variety of learning environments.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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Jane Holbrook

As Senior Instructional Developer (Blended Learning), Jane Holbrook helps to develop faculty programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with Faculty Liaisons, CEL (Centre for Extended Learning) and ITMS (Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. She received her BSc and MSc from Dalhousie University but has also studied Graphic Design at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

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