Take the Pulse of Student Learning

student working in library

After evaluating two semesters of Infectious Disease Epidemiology in Global Settings with initial and enhanced course re/design, we have learned a great deal from our experience and student feedback. I would like to highlight a simple tip we used to give small formative assessments throughout the learning process.

This course is the first hybrid graduate-level course offered by the Duke Global Health Institute. The course is taught by three instructors based on three different continents. The students in the initial offering of the course in the Spring 2016 were located at Duke, in Kenya, and on the Duke Kunshan University campus in China.

The course was based on a flipped classroom model, in which students watch prerecorded video lectures before class sessions. The instructors hosted in-person class meetings at their respective sites and connected to the other sites via web conferencing. Office hours were held through web conferencing. The course team conducted an evaluation of the project incorporating course data, student evaluations, and staff feedback. Recommendations based on this evaluation were incorporated into the second session of the course for Spring 2017.

Although the course was a huge success, the least effective component of the course in Spring 2016 was the weekly live discussion session via WebEx. The students commented the live sessions were not well used. In Spring 2017, we planned to strengthen and enhance the synchronous sessions by testing out some learning techniques including think-pair-share, team debates, “elevator talk,” and progressive case studies. One of the simplest things we implemented was to add either learner polling or free-text questions at critical points in the learning process.

To be a learner-centered facilitator, the instructor needs to focus on important questions, such as “How will we know if the students are learning?” Based on student responses, instructors can take the class pulse on a contentious topic, develop guidelines for future class discussions, or adjust the next learning steps in the course. One of many ways to accomplish this goal is to insert a poll or free text question along with learning materials. In the examples below, the instructor used the “Add Questions” in Lessons tool in Sakai to add a variety of questions to materials.

As Willie Williamson, Ed.D, one of our course redesign team members has pointed out, “A word of caution, it is easy to overuse these types of queries. Students can come to see them as simply an assessment element to be checked off, rather than an important opportunity to reflect on a critical topic in your course and provide you with their feedback.  However, used strategically, the Add Questions tool can offer insight into how well your students are learning and opportunities for course improvement.”

Below are some examples of easy questions that elicit student opinions and reinforce the materials: a poll, a free-text question, and a yes/no question.

screenshots of course videosscreenshots of course videosBased on multiple student surveys and focus group interviews, students consistently found that adding a few prompts/questions after the video increases their engagement and critical thinking skills, and reviewing peers’ responses broadening their views.

With available technology and good instructional design, you don’t have to implement something big. Even a small effort can make difference of improving learning.

Haiyan Zhou

Author: Haiyan Zhou

Haiyan consults with faculty on the integration of technology into their teaching, primarily with the Health Sciences, and on developing online course materials and planning ways to offer programs through online or blended online/face-to-face formats. Her professional interests include collaboration tools, online teaching methods, e-learning, and internationalization in higher education.