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Online learning helped students come to class prepared


Have you ever felt like you are a walking dictionary for your students? Do you spend a large portion of your class time explaining basic terminology? Do you ask students to read materials prior to class and still have “deer in the headlights” looking at you when you ask them a question from their readings?

I experienced all of the above scenarios at one time or another in my classroom. Upon reflection, it became obvious that students weren’t coming to class prepared to learn. Sure, they showed up with pens and PowerPoint slides in hand, but not connected to what the topic of the day was.

This left me feeling frustrated. Since I had to review basic terminology and concepts, there was never enough time to fully delve into a topic and “unpack” it for students. Instead, students were provided with a general understanding and had difficulty applying the concepts to real life situations.

As Albert Einstein so eloquently put it, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” To that end, I knew if I wanted more engaged students and to have the time to fully explore a topic, things had to change.

In Fall 2013, I decided to pilot an online learning program, MasteringBiology, in a first semester biology course by using a pseudo flipped classroom structure. Students were given nine assignments over the course of the semester based on textbook readings. Each assignment was worth 1% of their final grade. Each assignment was made available to the students for one week and was due the night before the lecture associated with the reading. Questions focused on basic terminology as well as simpler concepts and processes.

As a result of this course re-design, students:

  • Came to class with at least a cursory knowledge of the lecture topic
  • Asked thought-provoking questions allowing for an expansion of basic knowledge
  • Had time to ensure a deeper understanding of content
  • Participated in collaborative learning activities (which then magnified class engagement).

Since this use of MasteringBiology appeared to be so successful in my first semester course, I decided to expand its use into my second semester course in January 2014. This was an easy transition to make, given that students were already familiar with the platform and the pseudo flipped-classroom style of delivery.

Intuitively, I knew that students were doing better in the courses as a result of using MasteringBiology, but as a scientist, I needed quantitative evidence of this. When I was approached about conducting an educator case study, I jumped at the opportunity. The analysis of the grade data supported my intuition – students who attempted all of the online homework assignments had statistically significant higher scores on the final exam than those who skipped or missed one or more assignments.

I recently had a classroom observation conducted by my supervisor. The feedback included comments regarding how attentive and engaged the students were (and how none were on their phones/personal devices). My supervisor was also impressed with the level of questioning that occurred. It was more of a class dialogue than me lecturing students. The content that day allowed for a collaborative activity which further increased the level of engagement.

Re-designing my courses by implementing pre-lecture MasteringBiology assignments has changed the way I teach my classes. I rarely have to act as the “dictionary” or explain basic terminology and/or concepts any more. Nowadays, the “deer in the headlights” look is almost non-existent. Students are fully present and eager to learn. The approach I undertook for using online assignments has played a key role in that change.


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