Category Archives: Online Teaching and Learning

Five lesson design tips to help your learners find their Happy Place (…with some help from Dr Seuss)

We’ve all been there, that unhappy place at the pointy end of some badly designed learning material. You know the place – it’s grim and grey and jammed full of text-laden power point slides, complicated jargon, and at least one terrifying pie graph with microscopic labeling. It’s a place that’s confusing, generic, and entirely unengaging for you as a learner. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.”[1]

And dark these places are. The challenge can be even greater when you’re creating online lessons for students to use away from the classroom. But that’s where thoughtful lesson design helps: it switches on the floodlights, clears the way, and points your students in the right direction by putting them at the center of the learning experience, whether a teacher is in the room with them or not.

So, here are five simple design tips for creating effective and engaging online lessons, so you can help your learners find their happy place and stay on track:

 

Tip 1: Keep it simple!

  • Define your learning outcomes and post them in the lesson.
  • If content doesn’t support your instructional goals, delete it!
  • Make notes of relevant, contextual examples that could bring “life” to the learning outcomes, and help students understand why they are learning it.
  • Some hacks specifically for Life Science teaching:

 

Tip 2: Break up the text

  • Use your learning outcomes to help guide you in dividing up / chunking your text.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short and simple.
  • Highlight the focal points using headings, text formatting, color, and contrast.
  • Intentionally leave blank space on your lesson pages – it can be a powerful design tool to give important concepts some buffer space to call attention to their importance.
  • Make use of lists, bullet points, and tables to present information:

 

Tip 3: Make it visual

Did you know the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is backed by neuroscience? Research suggests that we remember more of what we see than what we read.[2]

Try these:

  • Use icons as virtual “signposts” for extra information. You can use these in multiple lessons to add cohesiveness.
  • Turn information into graphs or infographics for your lessons – you could even turn this into an assessment for students. This works especially well for conveying relationships or showing steps in a process:

Here’s another example of a complementary visual element:

 

These are some of our favorite free resources to help you create or add public domain or Creative Commons media to your lessons:

Note: While free, most of the sources above require proper attribution. Don’t forget to give the creator a virtual high-five by adding a citation to their media!

 

Tip 4: Ask questions

Adding practice and feedback to lessons is the most effective way to enhance the retention and recall of new material [3,4,5]. It also enables students to check their understanding and self-monitor for misconceptions early on in the learning process.

Test it out:

  • Distribute formative questions with feedback throughout lessons, not just at the end. (By making questions formative, the emphasis is placed on learning rather than earning or losing points.)
  • Mix up question types: categorizing, matching, ordering, and labeling exercises, MCQs, completing tables, free recall, etc. Variety in quizzing strengthens the ability to recall information down the road.
  • Are there still big blocks of text in your lessons? Try turning text into interactive questions! Students can order steps in a process, match terms and definitions, correct false statements into true statements, categorize by function, characteristic, etc.
  • Ask questions and create activities that check knowledge about the most important aspects of the instruction. Use your learning objectives to guide you!

 

Tip 5: Connect & reflect

Ask students to draw out new questions, connections, and conclusions through reflective activities. Actions like summarizing information into words or diagrams help students organize new information into preexisting schema, aiding the conversion of long-term memory [3,4].

 

Some reflective ideas:

  • Teach a new concept to friends or family members.
  • Brainstorm analogies that link new topics to well known ones.
  • Create a mind map or other visual or auditory representation that highlights the main points and connections between concepts.
  • Ask students how they would respond in a series of scenario-based questions.
  • Design a research project or critique a research paper.
  • Brainstorm what questions they still have about the subject, to encourage curiosity and further self-directed learning.

________

Ultimately, even simple tweaks to how you display information will have a big impact on students’ attitude toward and engagement with course materials. To help, download this cool infographic of our lesson design tips to keep handy when designing your lessons!
These design elements are a way to shift from instructor-led lessons to ones where the student is the center of the design and learning experience. If you can spend a small amount of time and effort on lesson design it can greatly enhance student motivation and increase time on task – turning them into the brainy, footsy, mountain-moving achievers they are destined to be.

 

The only question now is…will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) [1]

 

References:

[1] Seuss, Dr. (1990). Oh, the places you’ll go! New York: Random House.

[2] Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle: Pear press.

[3] Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[4] Malamud, C. (2016, Oct 6). Strategies For Effective Online Instruction: A Conversation with Michelle D Miller. The eLearning Coach Podcast. [Audio podcast] Retrieved from http://theelearningcoach.com/podcasts/36/

[5] Larsen, D. P, Butler, A.C., and Roediger, H. L. (2008). Test-enhanced learning in medical education. Medical Education. 42: 959–966. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2008.03124.x

 

Ellen Crimmins (MS) is an instructional designer and ocean enthusiast. She loves studying how people learn and working with educators to bring their online lessons to life. Away from the computer screen, you can find her exploring nature trails and 50s themed diners with her better thirds (husband and dog).
Sina Walker (MSciComm) is a writer and former natural history filmmaker. She has three little boys so doesn’t have time for many hobbies, but enjoys taking mom-dancing to new levels of awesome.
Marissa Scandlyn (PhD) is a product manager at ADInstruments by day, and a netballer by night. She’s researched new drug treatments for breast cancer and children’s leukemia with her pharmacology background, and was previously the coordinator of ADI’s team of Instructional Designers. Marissa enjoys reading, movie watching, and being mum to the cutest dog in the world, Charlie.
12 years of teaching technology to physiology educators

When I was approached to write a blog for PECOP I thought I could bring a slightly different perspective on classroom technology as I am not a full-time classroom educator.  My primary role for the past dozen years with ADInstruments has been to work with educators who use our products to get the most from their investment in our technology.  This has led to thousands of conversations about use and misuse of technology in the classroom and teaching laboratories.  I would like to share some of my insights here.

Early in my academic career I was tasked with a major overhaul of the introductory Biology curriculum at Louisiana Tech, and incorporating technology was part of this mandate. I have always been a bit of a tech geek, but rarely an early adopter.  I spent quite a bit of time and effort taking a good hard look at technology before implementing it in my classrooms.  I was fortunate enough to participate in T.H.E. QUEST (Technology in Higher Education: Quality Education for Students and Teachers). Technology was just beginning to creep into the classroom in the late nineties. Most courses were traditional, chalk and talk; PowerPoint was still a new thing, and this three-week course taught us how to incorporate this emerging technology appropriately.  PowerPoint worked better for many of us than chalk and talk, but also became a crutch, and many educators failed to use the best parts of this technology and applied it as a panacea.  Now PowerPoint has fallen out of favor and has been deemed to be “Killing Education”(1).  When used improperly, rather than curing a problem, it has backfired and reduced complex concepts to lists and bullet points.

I was fortunate enough to have been on the leading edge for a number of technologies in both my graduate and academic careers.  Anybody remember when thermocyclers were rare and expensive?  Now Open PCR can deliver research quality DNA amplification for around $500.  Other technologies became quickly obsolete; anybody remember Zip drives? Picking the tech that will persist and extend is not an easy task.  Will the Microscope go the way of the zip drive?  For medical education this is already happening (2).  While ADInstruments continues to lead the way with our PowerLab hardware and software packages for education (3); there are plenty of other options available.  Racks of very specialized equipment for recording biological signals can now be replaced with very affordable Arduino based electronics (4,5). As these technologies and their supporting software gets easier to use, almost anyone can collect quality physiological data.

One of the more interesting technologies that is evolving rapidly is the area of content delivery or “teaching and learning” platforms. The most common of these for academia are the Learning Management Systems. These are generally purchased by institutions or institutional systems and “forced” upon the faculty.  I have had to use many different platforms at different institutions. Blackboard, Desire 2 Learn, Moodle, etc. are all powerful tools for managing student’s digital records, and placing content in their “virtual” hands.  Automatic grading of quiz questions, as well as built in plagiarism detection tools can assist educators with large classes and limited time, when implemented properly.  This is the part that requires buy in from the end user and resources from the institution to get the faculty up and running (6).  While powerful, these can be cumbersome and often lack the features that instructors and students who are digitally savvy expect.  Many publisher digital tools integrate with the University LMS’s and are adopted in conjunction with, or more frequently now instead of a printed textbook.  McGraw Hill’s Connect and LearnSmart platforms have been optimized for their e-textbooks and integrate with most LMS’s (7).  Other purpose-built digital tools are coming online that add features that students expect like Bring Your Own Device applications; Top Hat is one of these platforms that can be used with mobile devices in and out of the classroom (8).

 

So what has endured?

In my almost 20 years in higher education classrooms and labs, lots of tools have come and gone.  What endures are passionate educators making the most of the technology available to them.  No technology, whether digital or bench top hardware, will solve a classroom or teaching laboratory problem without the educator.  While these various technologies are powerful enhancements to the student experience, they fall flat without the educator implementing them properly.  It’s not the tech, it’s how the tech is used that makes the difference, and that boils down to the educator building out the course to match the learning objectives they set.

 

 

 

My advice to educators can be summed up in a few simple points: 

  • Leverage the technology you already have.
    • Get fully trained on your LMS and any other digital tools you may already have at your institution. The only investment you will have here is your time and effort.
    • Check the cabinets and closets, there is a lot of just out of date equipment lying around that can be repurposed. Perhaps a software update is all you need to put that old gear back in rotation.
  • Choose technology that matches your course objectives.
    • Small and inexpensive purpose-built tech is becoming readily available, and can be a good way to add some quantitative data to the laboratory experience.
    • Top of the line gear may have many advantages for ease of use and reliability, but is not necessarily the best tool to help your students accomplish the learning objectives you set.
  • Investigate online options to traditional tools.
    • eBooks, OpenStax, and publisher’s online tools can be used by students for a lot less money than traditional texts and in some cases these resources are free.

References:

1) http://pdo.ascd.org/lmscourses/pd11oc109/media/tech_m1_reading_powerpoint.pdf

2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4338491/

3) https://www.adinstruments.com/education

4) http://www.scoop.it/t/healthcare-medicine-innovation)

5) https://backyardbrains.com/

6) http://www.softwareadvice.com/hr/userview/lms-report-2015/

7) http://www.mheducation.com/highered/platforms/connect.html

8) https://tophat.com

 

Wes Colgan III is the Education Project Manager for ADInstruments North America. He works with educators from all over the world to develop laboratory exercises for the life sciences.  He conducts software and hardware workshops across North America, training educators to use the latest tools for data acquisition and analysis. He also teaches the acquisition and analysis portion of the Crawdad/CrawFly courses with the Crawdad group at Cornell. He has been a Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience member since 2007, and was named educator of the year for 2014.  Prior to Joining ADInstruments, he was an assistant professor at Louisiana Tech University where he was in charge of the introductory biology lab course series.
Embracing Online Education: A Brief Personal Reflection

I would like to state upfront to all the loyal PECOP readers that I am not a blogger, nor am I an active participant in many social media venues and I do not Tweet! So when I was trying to decide what to write about I made a list of concerns that I face as a faculty member at a regional state university in the Midwest. My ideas included topics like life-work balance, burn-out, anti-science/academic sentiments, student retention, academic standards and institutional budget concerns. The list of possibilities was great, but this list seemed too negative for a career I truly do enjoy. I would like to instead speak briefly of a place that I have found refuge from many of the topics mentioned above. That refuge is the administration of an online Principles of Biology course.

I find it strange myself to consider how a person who may seemingly possess the characteristics of a social media Luddite, would want to get involved with and indeed embrace the world of online education. So I will list and briefly reflect on three areas that drew me to online education: love of learning; love of teaching; and accessibility.

Love of learning

I derive deep pleasure from learning new things and even reviewing those things that I already know.  After all, who would ever tire of learning and teaching about the structure and function of the mitotic spindle, the sarcomere, or how an action potential occurs or how a whole embryo forms from a single cell!  These cellular structures and their functions are so beautiful and amazing, that I really enjoy revisiting them again and again, each time adding a few new details to my lecture notes.  I also appreciate hearing others talk about subjects outside of biology, such as history and philosophy. One important venue I use for learning new things takes place in my car, during my daily commutes.  I listen to courses from The Great Courses series produced by the Teaching Company, lectures and talks from iBiology, hhmi/BioInteractive, various Ted talks, and individual posted lectures that can be found through a quick search on Google. Some of my favorites are bookmarked for easy retrieval or in the case of the Teaching Company courses, I actually own.  So what keeps me going as a faculty member through the periods of burn-out and meeting the daily requirements of academic life is the joy of learning and putting together a package of information and materials that students can use to learn about the subject as well or even just tweaking that material so students may learn it better.

Love of teaching

How can this love of learning get transferred from faculty to students in a way that also encourages students to become lifelong self-learners?  Can students really be taught to be lifelong self-learners? And, if so, what pedagogical methods are best suited to reach this goal? I have already discussed how I enjoy listening to educational lectures, but I would argue that the enjoyment of listening is not sufficient enough to learn the material.  In preparing for a lecture or to oversee meaningful active learning experiences, one is not simply able to listen to a great lecture and then be able to teach the material to students, expecting them to walk away and be able to apply that content in a meaningful way.

How then do faculty prepare to teach? Even if you are a fan of lecturing, most faculty members would agree that a fabulously well-delivered lecture, even a short one, is the result of hours of reading, reflection, writing, and repeating each of these!  I see this as the elephant in the room: that a great lecturer is really a great learner.  Thus, while it is quite enjoyable to hear a great lecture, it does not mean that the attending students are learning in a manner that creates lasting behavioral changes. This is in contrast to someone who has already engaged with the material. Even before I started teaching online, I had started assigning more readings, reflective writing assignments, and oral presentations from students in all my classes. When students now ask me every semester,” Do I really need to buy/rent the textbook?”  I say yes AND you must also read it and bring it with you to every class, as if your life …I mean your grade depends on it!

Accessibility

I have briefly reflected above on my love of learning and my love of teaching. And I try to model for my students, the skills I use to learn new material, such as reading the text, reflecting and writing on the material, as well as presenting the material to others during class through presentation and in accessing learning through quizzes and examinations. But do you have to be in the same classroom to teach this way? I have found the answer to be no. I have had the enlightening experience to see that I can assign the same readings, provide many of the same online resources for reflection and practice, and have regular meaningful interactions and quality controlled proctored assessments online through webcasting software such as Zoom with my online students as I have had with my face to face students. Online education at its best is more than simply posting content and assessments over a learning management system.  Depending on software and internet availability, I can be anywhere, the student can be anywhere, and we can still have a scheduled, meaningful face-to-face interaction. In fact, I am often finding the interactions with my online students to be more meaningful and memorable than the ones in my face to face classes. As I continue this adventure in online education, I hope to continue to be able to take my classroom on the road so to speak. Maybe the car in my daily commutes (especially with the advent of self-driving vehicles) will become “my classroom”, instead of where I merely arrive.

In summary, when the daily grind of academic duties and responsibilities gets me down and feeling negative, I have a place I can go and do what I enjoy most about academia, prepare and deliver material for students anytime and anyplace.

A short list of my favorite online lecture resources for the lifelong self-learner in us all

Melissa A. F. Daggett is an Associate Professor of Biology at Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, MO. Melissa received her Ph.D. in Physiology and Cell Biology at The University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS and completed post-doctoral work in gene regulation and sex determination at The University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS. Melissa currently teaches Principles of Biology (both face to face and online), plus two senior undergraduate/graduate level courses in Developmental Biology and Molecular Cell Biology. She has also taught courses in Animal Physiology, Microbiology and Environmental Science. She is currently interested in expanding opportunities for course based undergraduate research experiences in all her courses; especially those projects related to environmental toxicology and development.