Experiment, test, refine: work with students to shape online courses

Submitted by miranda.prynne on Mon, 25/01/2021 - 09:15
If you want to improve teaching, speak to the learners, explains Pat Tissington, who advocates using student feedback to continually experiment and adjust your online instruction methods throughout the course
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My first lecturing job was a part-time, fixed-term contract. Having completed the first term of teaching, I felt it was going OK but thought I could do better – and I was desperate to secure a permanent role.

So, the next term I decided to experiment. What if I played upbeat music before the lecture as the students were arriving? Immediate positive response.

What if I played quieter, more thoughtful music? Turns out that Nick Cave is a terrible introduction to a Monday lecture, so I never did that again.

What if I assigned short pieces of work every week to encourage reflection on the material? Fail.

OK, what if I made these small pieces of work count towards the final mark? Worked a treat.

The move to online

When I started teaching online courses, I quickly realised the digital learning environment offered many opportunities to experiment and test course content and delivery, placing the students at the heart of this.

I discovered data logs that enabled me to see how students were interacting with the material. For instance, if I could see students revisiting certain sections, it suggested that these needed clarifying or rewording. I could also see what time of day students preferred to engage with the content and thus adjust when it was released.

Online teaching also offered options for rapid feedback via micro-surveys that took seconds.

As the years progressed, I became more structured in the way I refined my teaching methods using these principles:

  • Find out what students think: Jump at every chance to gather student feedback about the course and absorb every morsel – no matter how uncomfortable. Students are clever and motivated, and any chance to get their perspective is priceless.
  • Evaluate feedback: Don’t always change immediately due to student feedback. Find ways to evaluate whether the comments are valid and where they are, act upon them quickly.
  • Experience is the best test: There are benefits in asking what students might want. But if they have directly experienced something, then they can really assess its value.

These key principles are now well recognised as part of the methodology known as “Lean Startup” used for developing products and businesses.

How this works in practice

Teaching online means that you cannot read the room as you would if you were there in person with the students, so it takes more active planning to ensure student involvement.

Here is my rough guide:

  1. If you were teaching online for the first time last year, take time to reflect on how it landed. Maybe some of the things you thought looked great didn’t help convey your meaning; maybe some things you thought would work didn’t, while others proved far more effective than expected.
  2. Get immediate feedback from students at the end of the first online session or block of learning. You can do this really easily on most virtual teaching platforms by using a quick survey, but keep it to just two or three questions with a comment box. If it is any longer, it will become tiresome. Ask about the technology, the pace of teaching, the style and presentation of materials and whether students understood everything.
  3. Use the results to refine your design and delivery of the course over future weeks. Make it clear that you are responding to students’ feedback and comments as this will help them feel more motivated and invested in the course. Encourage further comments through messaging or email.
  4. Set up text-based live chats to answer questions but also ask some of your own about delivery. When a student asks you about something, after answering them, ask them about the things you are trying such as: “Can I check on the pace? Are there any theories that you think need a bit more explanation or some that need less?”
  5. Keep trying new things throughout the course. If something doesn’t work, discard it. If it may or may not work, tweak it and try again until you find the sweet spot.

I advocate an experimental mindset because, while it takes effort, it results in you presenting ideas in ways that make sense to students. Your students are the only people who can really tell you whether your efforts are working or not.

Pat Tissington is a leadership coach and professor of organisational psychology at the University of Warwick.

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If you want to improve teaching, speak to the learners, explains Pat Tissington, who advocates using student feedback to continually experiment and adjust your online instruction methods throughout the course