Supporting students with VLE study prompts

At university level the common understanding is that we used scheduled contact time – lectures, tutorials, seminars, recitation, and blessed laboratories – to share with students whatever content we think is important about our topic. That time will typically account for anything between 25 – 50% of the workload we think students will spend on their topic. The remainder is generally classified something like “independent study time” where students are meant to learn their topic – eh – independently. I have had a long fascination with what actually happens in that “independent study time”.

Busy Work

The answer is complex because students could for example choose to focus on course work for continuous assessment to the detriment of playing the longer game; could engage in “surface” rather than “strategic” study strategies that may have been successful in earlier stages of study; and could spend too much time navigating and organising – the breadth of materials now available to students is overwhelming – lecture notes, own notes, lecture captures, VLE materials, textbooks, Google. They could be doing any and all of this, and not enough time on generative activities relating to learning.

The take-home message at this stage is that one can imagine a dutiful student who keeps themselves very busy, is working hard and engaging fully in their course but ultimately is misdirected. Our dutiful student may only find out that they were spending time on the wrong things if an exam mark for this previously A-grade student is less than expected, or may not find out at all, and just put it down to not understanding “the system”.

And at this point I want to stand up and shriek, Maude Flanders style, “how could they know?!” Who tells them? As Scott Lewis has noted, even if we were to follow students around 24/7, we might not get a true representation about how they study. We would see our dutiful student engaging in study-like activities and be content. Learner analytics won’t know – the student is attending class, clicking in VLEs, watching captures and doing well in CA. That dashboard is gonna be lurid green.

Structuring independence

We need to tell students how to study. Much more than that, in fact, we need to incorporate good study practices into our curriculum. What might such a structure look like? I am a fan of Sinapuelas and Stacy’s work describing a framework for learning approaches, which presents four layers of learning approaches:

  • gathering facts (“what is the answer?”)
  • learning procedures (“how do you do this?”)
  • confirming understanding (“am I thinking about this correctly?”)
  • applying ideas (“is this the right way to approach this?”)

VLE study prompts

One could imagine then a task-list in a VLE with prompts relating to whichever of these tasks were relevant in a given week. It’s likely there will always be a “gathering facts”. We usually want students to know things. Perhaps such a study prompt might share (or ask students to generate) a mind map of the main topics covered in that week. We could aid connection to the array of learning materials by headlining what resources (lecture notes/capture/textbook sections) could be used to review the headline concepts. The student then sets to the task of review, but now with some more direction.

Extra brownie points go to not just supporting study approaches, but supporting learning while studying. In the “gathering facts” prompts, we could share a quiz or a sample mind map with gaps and ask students to fill in the blanks. Feedback then can give students information on what they do and don’t know, and crucially – where they can follow up (sharing those resource links again). The table below shares some examples of how digital approaches could be effective in this regard for each of the “levels” of study.


Study Level Sample Prompt Self-checking resource ideas
Gathering facts Make a mind map of the main topics covered this week. You will see an overview of the week at the start of lecture 3 both in the notes and in the recording. This topic also closely aligns with Textbook, Chapter 5, pp. 81-90. Drag and drop activity of mind-map with gaps


MCQ on main concepts, with feedback pointing to module resources where more information can be found


Learning procedures Explain the protocol for determining how to assemble the thing we did in Week 4. Make sure you can identify the main decisions to be made at each of the four stages. We covered this approach in Lecture 6 and tried some examples in Tutorial 3. Review these examples before trying new ones listed below.


Worked example incorporating fading (designed with cognitive load theory in mind – click image for explanation)

Worked example differs from an example by showing steps involved. Fading ask students to complete increasing numbers of these steps so that they become familiar with each stage, and are able to approach solving a problem


Sample questions (with only final answers)

Confirming understanding What are the main factors that we should take into account when critiquing the kinds of outputs generated in our discussion in Week 6? Textbook chapter 10, pp. 190-198 goes into this in detail – can you summarise and apply these factors to the cases we considered in Lecture 8?


Exemplars – for example a video role-modelling the kinds of critique – emphasis on modelling out and explaining the approaches rather than getting to the answer.
Applying ideas A major part of your final assessment will be to interpret some limitations in a report provided and add in information to bring it to the required regulation standard. We’ve reviewed exemplary reports in our last two lectures and the kinds of things they should contain. Summarise these concepts before trying the example below. An annotated sample answer – for example using “comment” feature in word, explaining out the processes under consideration.


These types prompts will be very powerful for students. I have left out associated theory to keep this post focussed, but they are underpinned by the idea of generative activity, and aim to support student development of their self-efficacy. All out these kinds of approaches are empowering. Yes it is a pain to make the resources, but thought out well they will be a lifeline for years to come. And your students will love you for it and learn a lot about your topic from them!


Brooks, D. W. and Crippen, K. J. (2009) Applying cognitive theory to chemistry instruction: the case for worked examples, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 10, 35 – 41.

Lewis, S. (2018). At-Risk Students and Equity in Post-Secondary Introductory Chemistry, RSC Chemical Education Research Group Webinar,

Sinapuelas, M.L. and Stacy, A.M., 2015. The relationship between student success in introductory university chemistry and approaches to learning outside of the classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching52(6), pp.790-815.

Wittrock, M. C. (1994). Generative Science Teaching, in The Content of Science: A Constructivist Approach to its Teaching and Learning, Fensham P. J., Gunstone, R. F. and White, R. T. (eds), Falmer Press.