Center for Teaching Hosts Student Focus Groups to Study Online and Hybrid Learning | New



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Last fall, faculty and students found themselves teaching and learning in new contexts, from online courses to hybrid classrooms. In October and November 2020, the Provost’s Office Teaching Center conducted a series of focus groups with students to better understand their learning experiences in these environments.

“Given our regular work with faculty, we have a good idea of ​​their perspectives on adaptive teaching,” said Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching and senior lecturer in mathematics. “We wanted to hear from students about the teaching choices that aided their learning in order to better advise instructors on spring course design. “

Staff at the Center for Teaching have worked successfully with administrators in the Dean’s Office from three schools – Arts and Sciences, Divinity and Owen – to convene and facilitate focus groups with students both on campus and remotely. Over a dozen focus groups were held with students from these schools as well as students from Peabody and Engineering.

“We asked the students two main questions,” Bruff said. “What aspects of your online and hybrid courses this fall do you identify as the most useful for your learning? And what recommendations for online and hybrid education do you have for instructors or the school administration to help you learn more effectively? “

Students discussed these questions in small groups, responded in writing using an online form, and shared their responses with the Center for Teaching facilitators at Zoom meetings. After each focus group, Teaching Center staff prepared a report for that focus group, compiling student responses to the questions and identifying themes for those responses.

Center for Teaching staff shared summaries of feedback from the student focus groups with various groups, including the following:

While there were differences in student experiences in the fall by school, some common themes emerged from the focus groups. For example, students enjoyed it when instructors structured Zoom lesson sessions to encourage discussion and engagement. They cited the creative use of Zoom’s features, like chat rooms and text chat, as helpful. The recorded lesson videos were also helpful, which not only freed up time during class sessions for interaction, but also allowed students to slow down, speed up, pause, and review lessons for. facilitate their learning.

Balancing asynchronous and synchronous learning was an important design consideration for instructors. “Meeting the needs of students in different time zones is difficult,” said Bruff, “but having synchronous classroom sessions, at least occasionally, goes a long way in supporting student motivation, engagement, and community.” Several students reported that fully asynchronous lessons were less engaging and made it more difficult to follow through.

With so many new and different course elements in the move to the Internet, communication about homework and activities was essential. The students appreciated that the instructors found multiple ways to share information and convey expectations. Flexibility was also important. “Considering all of the factors beyond the control of the students, flexibility in timelines and due dates for assignments was greatly appreciated,” said Bruff. “It was a consistent theme in all of the focus groups. “

Students at Vanderbilt, like those at other institutions, have reported that it sometimes seemed like instructors were assigning more work to online courses than they would in traditional courses. “We consulted with hundreds of teachers who were very intentional about the homework and activities they planned for their classes,” said Bruff. “There is something of a paradox here, because students often perceived these activities as ‘hard work’. “

The Center for Teaching has provided resources to the Vanderbilt teaching community to address this “busywork paradox,” including a January Panel, a podcast episode and one new blog post by Julaine Fowlin, Assistant Director of Instructional Design at the Teaching Center. “Online learning is still new to many students and instructors,” Fowlin said. “There is a learning curve for the students, but also for the faculty. However, the more we can relate learning activities to other elements of a course, the more meaningful these activities can be for students.

Fall student focus groups are just one way the Teaching Center partners with units on campus to support the university’s teaching mission. Other recent and upcoming partnerships include a panel on accessibility and equity in course designwith student access services, a workshop on teaching self-compassion with the Center for Student Wellbeing, a workshop on counseling for immersion students with the Office of Immersion Resources, and a learning community about education and race with the Office of Inclusive Excellence.

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