Creating Content and Assessment Choices to Enhance Student Learning and Success in Online Classes

Author Information
Leslie Bowman, Clemson University, Online Student Success Coach
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Ozarks Technical College (Springfield MO)
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Walden University (Minneapolis MN)
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

In order for personalized learning to happen and for students to become motivated to learn and interested in the topic, they have to be involved in the teaching/learning process. Personalized learning means that students choose what they want to learn in order to master the course or unit learning outcomes. Personalized learning promotes mastery of course content because students are actively engaged in the learning process; students teach and learn from each other. After having developed numerous courses in various subject areas over the past decade, I have found that it becomes necessary to pick and choose what topics and issues to include in the course outcomes. Textbooks are huge tomes with far more content than can be adequately covered in a single course term. So as the experts in the subject matter, faculty are expected to determine the most important and valuable content to include in the course. When several instructors are teaching multiple sections of the same course, there is a lot of discrepancy in what students learn in the different sections of the course. One course might include a cursory study of 15 out of 22 chapters. Another course might include a deeper study of 12 out of 22 chapters. Some faculty may attempt to cover every chapter in the textbook. In all these scenarios, some students will be bored because the content they are most interested in may not be covered in the course. Other students may be overwhelmed because they have no experience or prior knowledge and all the content is new to them. Students who have no interest will put forth no effort. Being bored and/or deluged with information can shut down even the most motivated learners.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Every online course has topics and learning outcomes related to those topics. For the past five years, I have provided students with choices of topics and issues within the course content. In each unit of study, students choose two out of five topics and also contribute a new topic of their own. Students decide the topics they want to learn about in depth. Participation and engagement in dialogue is required 5/7 days per week in the online classroom. Each unit of study allows for a deeper exploration of several topics as opposed to units of study with one or two discussions and a single summative assessment.

Along with content choices, I also provide students with choices in assessments. There are choices of assignment topics in each unit of study as well as choices in how they will demonstrate mastery and application of those topics. For example, Unit 1 includes eight topics for assessment. Students choose three topics and also choose how they will demonstrate mastery and application of the content. Choices include written essays and reports, presentations, and various multimedia tools. The stipulation is that they may not use the same assessment assignment more than once.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

At the end of the class, students did better on the final exam than in other classes where multiple topics were not studied in depth. The benefit of personalized learning through content and assessment choices is that students learn more about the course content than they do if the instructor chooses a finite number of discussions and assignments.

Effectiveness of these practices has been evidenced through final grades and higher retention in online classes for the past five years. While there has not been a formal quantitative study, a comparison of end of course grades and rosters shows fewer drop-outs and failures. Students are more engaged in the learning process, evident through emails and course evaluation comments.

Student Comments:

I hate wasting time on discussions and assignments when I already know something. I'd much rather learn something new.

I learned a lot about my chosen topics in this class. I also learned new information from the topics my classmates chose that were different from my topics.

I really enjoyed all the presentations and multimedia productions by classmates. I learned more from my classmates' work than I ever learned from reading or listening to lectures or just watching powerpoints.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

How does this practice relate to pillars?

Access: All students access the course units of study through the school LMS in a discussion boards set up specifically designed for content and assessment choices.

Learning Effectiveness: Students demonstrate content mastery through a variety of collaborative activities, including text, audio and visual media, case studies, table-top activities, and multimedia production. Topic discussions promote critical thinking as students apply the course concepts to real life situations.

Student Satisfaction: More students engage in discussions more frequently than in the old-style online class discussion format. I had fewer "absences" during discussions in these courses.

Instructor Satisfaction: Instructors enjoy the active engagement and seeing students applying concepts to business and other real life situations. Grading takes far less time because the instructor is interacting with students on an ongoing basis, providing formative assessment feedback, and guiding students in revisions so that final assignment products are comprehensive.

Scale: These strategies can be used in any online or traditional course. If used in a traditional course, I recommend setting up a discussion forum in the school LMS for each topic in each unit of study.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Online discussions are optimal for this type of teaching and learning. Most schools provide access to the online program LMS for f2f faculty to use in their traditional courses.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

For schools that provide LMS availability for f2f classes and that have online courses and programs, there is no additional cost. If instructors do not have access to an LMS, free online venues are available. There is no cost associated with implementing this in an online course.

References, supporting documents: 

Online Teaching and Learning: Creating Communities of Practice to Enhance Student Success and Increase Class Retention

Conference Presentation at the VCU Online Learning Summit, Richmond, VA May 2013

Conference Presentation at the Distance Learning Administration Conference 2013

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Leslie Bowman, Online Student Success Coach, Clemson University
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