Published on 2020/04/22

Online Education: Beyond Lectures and Discussion Groups

The EvoLLLution | Online Education: Beyond Lectures and Discussion Groups
At the end of the day, regardless of modality, consciously designed active learning is the most effective approach to supporting learner outcomes

The recent rush to bring courses online has led many people to associate online education with sessions conducted over Zoom or one of its cousins. These platforms were not built with education in mind and can provide only a pale shadow to traditional classrooms. This is unfortunate because face-to-face, live online courses can—in principle—actually be better in some respects than a traditional classroom.

To see why such courses can be so good, we need to take a step back and consider what metrics to use to evaluate how good a course is. Let’s focus on just two: first and foremost, in my view, is student learning. A good course is one that leads students to learn—and retain!—the learning outcomes (i.e., the material the course was designed to convey). Second, students should find the experience appealing and want to come back for more.

Active learning allows us to create courses that excel on both counts. By active learning, I mean more than the traditional “learning by doing.” Active learning is goal-driven; it is designed to help students achieve a specific learning outcome.

A mountain of research documents that active learning is vastly more effective than traditional lecture-based learning. What makes it so effective? The short answer is that it taps into key brain functions. Numerous principles have been formulated to describe how the brain learns. One such principle has been called the Principle of Depth of Processing: the more you turn something over in your mind, pay attention to it and think it through, the more likely you are to understand and retain it—whether or not you want to. For example, if you are in a museum and someone asks you what makes a particular painting seem so lifelike, you will need to look at it carefully and analyze it. Even though you didn’t set out to remember it, you probably will as a direct consequence of the mental processing you did.

For the past several years, when I’ve given talks on the science of learning, I ask the audience the following questions: first, I ask them whether at the end of the day they ever reflect back on the events that transpired and ask for a show of hands. The vast majority report that they do this. I then ask the following: what percentage of what they recall did they, at the time that event was taking place, intentionally try to memorize it so that they later could recall it? I ask the audience to raise their hands if they intentionally tried to memorize 50% or more of what they recall at the end of the day. No person has ever raised their hand. I then ask them to raise their hands if they tried to memorize 25% of what they later recall; once in a while, someone raises their hand. I then work my way down, in 5% increments (20%, 15% and so on), asking for a corresponding show of hands. The modal response consistently has been 5%. Think about this: some 95% of what you recall at the end of the day is not a result of your intention to memorize it. Instead, it is a result of your paying attention to it and mentally processing what transpired.

From this perspective, a clear goal of active learning is to lead students to pay attention and mentally process the materials that underpins course learning outcomes. There is a trick for designing effective active learning exercises that accomplish this goal. The key is to focus on incentives and consequences. This is often easiest to do in multi-step exercises, in which each phase prepares students for the next one—and they will fail a phase if they don’t pay close enough attention to what they need to learn. For example, perhaps the class session is on negotiation strategies, and students are engaging in a role-playing exercise in which there are two roles: a seller and a buyer. In one group, the sellers meet and work out strategies for “anchoring” the buyer on a specific price (this is a learning outcome). In the other group, the buyers meet and devise ways to make the seller afraid to lose the deal (this is also a learning outcome). Following these initial groups, individual members from the first two groups are paired up and conduct a simulated negotiation—with the understanding that each member will be grading the other on how well they do. In this example, students in the first phase are motivated to pay attention and process deeply because they know they will need this material for the second phase (this is the incentive), and if they don’t use it well, they will get a bad grade (the consequence, the knowledge of which is part of the incentive).

These incentives and consequences address both metrics for determining how good a course is: they clearly lead students to learn and retain learning outcomes. And by making a game out of active learning exercises, students find the experience engaging and even fun. Such uses of incentives and consequences are particularly powerful with adult learners, who have experience in the workplace and understand such factors.

Note that these sorts of dynamics simply cannot be used in traditional asynchronous “at your own pace” online learning. And they are difficult to do with a standard video conferencing service such as Zoom, which does not allow pre-programmed sequences of breakout groups, nor does it offer easy tools for students to make evaluations.

It is clear that live, face-to-face online education has enormous promise, and one way to fulfill that promise is to view it through the lens of active learning. We need to consider what tools should supplement software platforms that were designed as general purpose video conferencing services. The techniques that underlie effective online education are not necessarily intuitive or obvious, and they can clearly be enhanced by adding additional tools—and such tools should facilitate learning and make the experience engaging and satisfying.

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