Chemistry, Contingency Planning

Micro-structuring students’ learning with SMARTS

Much of our interaction with students involves structuring their work as they move through a curriculum. The very presence of a timetable is a headline structure, telling students when they will hear content on particular topics, when they will discuss it in class, and when they will work in labs. Much of my own work is focussed on micro-structuring – that is to say structuring at School level but with consideration of individual student actions. For example, in labs and tutorials, we’ve had a lot of success with structuring students work before, during, and after contact time. This means students know what they need to focus on at particular stages, and where it all fits in the bigger picture. It’s a really valuable approach both in helping students navigate as they are learning, but also in fostering independence (the end point of structuring being, naturally, unstructured, but in a structured way…#meta). There is lots of stuff about self-efficacy wrapped up in this as well.

Micro-structuring

In an online/remote/hybrid(ised)/pivoted teaching, a lot of structures of the physical space disappear, and are replaced with overarching VLE structures. Structuring at the next level down, or what we can consider as the student perspective becomes very challenging. How are students meant to navigate materials; how do they know how they are getting on (self-efficacy alarm bells); and how are they connecting with others in the class? Will students know a topic is difficult are just think they are not able to do this course?

In planning for this, the protocol of first thinking about getting the content sorted and then planning the student interaction with the content is doomed from the start. Yes, we will want students to achieve certain things after our course and we will have in mind “content” that we want to expose them to so that we can achieve this. But instead of thinking of the “delivery” of materials, we would be better placed in planning it from the student journey through the materials.

Get SMARTS

My own experience from in-person structuring has led to coming up with the following six considerations, which I am naming the SMARTS ProtocolTM… So let’s Get SMARTS!

  1. Structured: the online journey should be highly structured and visible from the outset. If you have ever learned online (or even done 12.2% of a MOOC), you will know that the entire experience is highly structured – you can see at a glance the overall structure as well as how components are structured.
  2. Meaningful: meaningful learning theory is based on students consciously making meaningful connections between new knowledge presented and their existing (prior) knowledge and it seems to me that explicitly supporting this is extremely important in online settings. In writing about learning, Novak himself was pretty scathing about very high performing students in his own institution: “…This inability to transfer knowledge is sometimes referred to as ‘situated learning’. Thus much of this high ‘achievement’ is really fraudulent or inauthentic…”. It is not the purpose here to elaborate on meaningful learning in detail (see Novak in general terms and Bretz for chemistry), but the key take-away for me is that if students must consciously choose to engage in learning in a meaningful way, we need to guide and support that choice. For example, using advanced organisers to structure new content and explicitly link it to what has gone before will help students engage with the activities associated with the new materials.
  3. Active: active learning is grounded in meaningful learning theory. At a superficial level, this can require actions that denote progress; tick to say you’ve watched this video, etc, but clearly as we move to more advanced levels of thinking, incorporating active learning approaches into our online teaching will be necessary to allow students do sense-checking (e.g. quizzing, Q+A, discussing), sense-making (e.g. discussing, reviewing, writing), and sense-owning (e.g. writing, solving). Structuring activities into what might be called online tutorials will be vital.
  4. Routine: Within an overall structure, the cycles (e.g. weekly cycles) should form a regular pattern or routine. It helps build a pattern if students know the general cycle of what is coming for each sub-topic. Again taking a MOOC or doing an Open University course can be very informative to show how cycles can be developed (see here for a nice recent paper on the design and implementation of a chemistry MOOC).
  5. Trackable: Something more controversial – we need to be able to track how students are getting on and follow up as needed. This is reasonably straight-forward in even a (not particularly fantastic) VLE, by tracking last date of log in, quiz performance, discussion board viewings, and following up as desired. This is murky – because you might have a very active lurker who is learning a lot, and a very active contributor who isn’t learning very much. In a discussion board paper I wrote an aeon ago, I tried to categorise the four types of discussion board interactions along these lines, and tracking approaches will likely need to distinguish between them, with appropriate follow up based on the category. In a (not particularly fantastic) VLE, you can set up automatic alerts, but this probably needs a lot of human intervention.
  6. Social: A critical thing for obvious reasons and more. Highly structured activities involving (and requiring) social interactions will be important. In the looming headache that is online labs, a potential opportunity is using online labs to foster bigger group interactions instead of the usual pairing. But as mentioned in the above discussion board paper, fostering an online community is more than the academic components – setting out hopes, fears, and expectations for example is a good way to set the scene from the start that the online discussion is a place where a learning community can feel comfortable, and where the academic is “present”. Managing the social aspect is an enormous demand on time and resource.

I would very much welcome thoughts. Note that this piece is not considering assessment (purposefully) but (I think) I am aware that what we ask students to do regarding assessment will drive much of how we do the above. But here I wanted to focus on what we could do.