What can we do to help?

Oregon State University has prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and it is up to us as educators and those who support teaching and learning to actively co-create a culture that promotes tolerance and inclusion, for our students, our staff, and our community. To do this, we must challenge exclusion and commit to inclusive practices that promote real equity and extend opportunity to all students. University staff and instructors may be intentionally or unintentionally signaling their institution’s, their department’s, or their own levels of inclusion by the policies, rules, statements, systems, symbols, and representations they choose and use, so it is important to reassess what messages we are sending to students. While students may develop feelings of belonging on their own, it is more likely when the community actively, publicly, and earnestly offers a place at the table for everyone.

Ecampus strives to understand the unique issues faced by our online students and implement research-based solutions and strategies for increasing our students’ sense of belonging. Our commitment begins with high-quality, collaborative course design that enables instructors to work directly with the instructional design team to build interaction into course content, supplemented with faculty training opportunities to expose Ecampus instructors to a wide range of facilitation strategies that complement good design. 

There are a few general conditions that provide a foundation for belonging that we should be aware of, backed by extensive research. 

Support and flexibility

Online students choose our program for the flexibility it offers, and this often means that they are studying outside of business hours, at night and on the weekends. Likewise, their student support needs are likely to come at non-traditional times, so anticipating this and offering support services on demand and for extended times becomes important. Being aware of these needs and creating policies and practices that allow students to get the support they need in a timely manner can be a critical factor in online student success. 

Representation

Students need to see themselves represented, both amongst the staff and faculty they interact with and in the course materials they use. When students from marginalized groups see people who openly share their identity or background, they are reassured that they, too, belong. OSU is committed to building and retaining a diverse workforce and has implemented several strategies towards this goal, including a suite of trainings including the Social Justice Education Initiative (SJEI) and Search Advocate program, among others. Faculty and course designers can contribute to these efforts by considering how course content serves to further amplify previously ignored or excluded voices by choosing to include rather than exclude diverse voices, images, perspectives, and ideas.  

A safe environment that supports the conditions for learning

We support a safe learning environment when we actively challenge unhealthy beliefs about who can be successful and become more aware of behaviors that may harm others. In practice, this translates into making it clear that our school is a safe space and is not accepting of intolerance, bullying, stereotyping, or harassment. This effort is supported when faculty are knowledgeable about online learning best practices and work to welcome, inspire, engage, and mentor students learning online.

Encouragement and acknowledgement 

When we create learning environments that combine high expectations and rigor, we can support students’ achievement by affirming their ability to excel. Recognizing barriers and helping students overcome hurdles helps them build strong identities as scholars. Acknowledging students’ intersecting identities, celebrating diversity, and fostering respectful relationships between students lets students know that they are a valued part of our community. 

Additionally, we can help online students create a sense of community and connection to OSU, their peers, and their instructors. Small acts of inclusion can go a long way toward creating a warm, friendly, welcoming space for students. 

Connecting with the university

Online students may identify more strongly as an online learner than an OSU student. They may feel unseen in comparison to on-campus students. This may be compounded when multiple, intersecting identities further this sense of disconnection. To combat this, we can strive to reinforce to our online students’ that they are indeed an important part of our community by welcoming new students, celebrating milestones and successes, and providing coaching, tutoring, and resources to support advancement and matriculation. Ecampus sends incoming students an OSU graduation tassel as a reminder that they are part of the OSU community and to encourage them to persevere throughout their studies. 

Connecting with other students 

Campus affinity organizations, such as OSU’s seven unique cultural centers, and clubs can offer students the chance to meet and become involved with students and staff who share their identity and/or interests. Peer mentorship programs can be another way of providing direct supportive connections to fellow students. 

Connecting with support staff

Oftentimes, the first OSU representatives new students interact with are support staff who handle welcome or orientation programs, so they play a large role in setting the stage for belonging by being explicitly inclusive and communicating OSU’s commitment to DEI. Academic Advisors can be crucial to success, helping navigate the policies, procedures, and schedules online students must be aware of. Another key support role is that of the Success Coach, who works closely with students to identify barriers to success, find available resources, develop good study habits, and collaboratively build out plans to achieve academic goals. Online open houses, info sessions, newsletters and engagement events can strengthen online students’ sense of belonging, as can sharing relevant social media channels with online students, providing a substitute experience for on-campus visits and activities. Overall, it is important that university staff meet online students where they are, bringing the campus experience to them as much as possible via the LMS, social media, email, and Zoom. 

Connecting with faculty

Undoubtedly, the group that has the most significant impact on online students’ experience of belonging is the faculty they learn from. Students resoundingly report that instructor interaction and feedback are the most influential aspects of online course satisfaction. This is reflective of the reality that instructors play several roles in online classrooms, serving as course manager, technical support, and social facilitator in addition to subject matter experts. This gives instructors of online courses many opportunities to influence how welcome students feel in their online courses, and they communicate this via the implicit and explicit tone of their communications, the learning materials and activities they choose, their course policies, and the feedback they provide. 

complex bar chart showing student responses in the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022
The chart above, from the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022, echoes our internal Ecampus student survey results, with a large proportion of students indicating that instructor access is key to success and happiness in online courses.

Beginning with the syllabus, an instructor signals their own beliefs and attitude towards learning by both what they say and how they say it. If the course lacks face-to-face or synchronous meetings, online students must look at course design, learning materials, and instructor communications for clues about how included they can expect to be. Syllabi written in a warm, welcoming tone serves as an indicator that an instructor first and foremost cares about students, and simple tweaks to syllabus language can go a long way toward conveying this to students. Using language that references learning together, respecting differences, and building of community can reassure students that their instructor cares about them and wants them to succeed. Ecampus recently released updated online and hybrid syllabus templates for the 23-24 academic year, with some sections rewritten in a more inclusive and welcoming tone. 

This short video by Ana Lu Fonseca, OSU Assistant Director of Diversity, highlights the importance of using inclusive and affirming language.

Course design and content is another area where instructors can have direct influence on students’ sense of belonging. Ecampus courses are designed via collaboration between an instructional designer and faculty developer, using our Ecampus Essentials as a guideline. Instructors who want to improve their online courses can ensure that they meet not only the essential standards but also the exemplary ones, which represent research-based best practices that help students have better outcomes when learning online. 

Creating courses that are accessible for all students is a priority at Ecampus, and our designers often turn to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines, which outline concrete steps to make courses more learner friendly for all students. Our OSU Canvas LMS also has built-in accessibility tools, including the UDOIT checker for faculty and Canvas’ own checker in the Rich Content Editor box, that can assist instructors in finding and fixing accessibility issues. We also have Ally, which checks the accessibility of course content, helps fix the content, and helps students by generating alternative forms of content. 

Representation is another important factor related to belonging where faculty can have a significant influence. Instructional materials that reflect diverse perspectives can help students understand whose voices, perspectives, and contributions are deemed worthy, valued, and legitimate. Acknowledging and helping students understand how certain groups have contributed to or been left out of certain fields and areas of study is an important facet of challenging and countering negative stereotypes. Instructors can choose to include a wide range of images, stories, and voices in the learning materials for their courses. When students see themselves represented in the course in positive and inclusive ways, they are more likely to be engaged and willing to learn. If materials in a course present a limited viewpoint or show only a small fraction of human races, genders, nationalities, and experiences, students may struggle to find them relevant to their own lives. 

Creating a sense of community within a course has a positive effect on students’ sense of belonging, and instructors have opportunities to foster community throughout the term. Structuring courses so that students have varied opportunities to interact with the instructor and fellow students is an important part of community building, especially in asynchronous courses. Group work, peer review, and collaborative projects can help students get to know their classmates, which is another component of belonging. Consider giving students chances to interact both academically and socially. This might include not just offering but actively inviting them to synchronous study sessions, happy hours, or office hours, assigning some group or pair work or peer reviews, or providing forums such as discussion boards or chat tools like Teams or Slack where students can informally interact. 

An significant but often unstated role of an instructor in online courses is that of guide, helping students make sense of the course layout, format, and flow as well as framing the big picture when it comes to content and learning outcomes. This can take many overlapping and complementary forms, such as making announcements that recap the prior week or assignments and remind students what is coming and how it connects to the prior lessons, providing study guides, timelines, flowcharts or other big-picture supports, or helping steer online discussions in the right direction. Rubrics are another meaningful way to convey relative importance and weight of different aspects of graded work, with the added benefits of communicating clear expectations and making it easier to grade work fairly. 

Related to serving as a guide to course materials, instructors can help students connect to their field of study in more personal and comprehensive ways. How an instructor chooses to address students can facilitate them seeing themselves as practitioners and experts, and by addressing them as future scientists (or artists or historians), can instill a measure of confidence in their self image. Course content can also be adapted to include clear connections to professionals in the field and professional organizations that might be of interest. Helping students become cognizant of the norms, vocabulary, and typical work conditions they can expect can help motivate and prepare students for life and work after graduation, and sets a foundation for belonging within their discipline and track. 

Perhaps most important ways an instructor impacts student belonging is how they facilitate a course in progress. Regular communication and clear presence of the instructor within the online course site, along with timely and meaningful feedback on assignments, consistently rise to the top as critical for online student success. These findings underpin many of our Online Teaching Principles, a guide for faculty focusing on the art of facilitating courses online, developed in 2022 to complement our Ecampus Essentials. These principles include suggestions aligned with best practices that support creating an inclusive environment.

Feedback is one of the most critical ways instructors influence students’ learning, and research supports a 24-hour turnaround time for responding to questions during the week and a five-day turnaround for grading and feedback, both essential for online students to be able to progress through course content in a timely manner. How feedback is given is equally important- comments for improvement should be couched in positive and encouraging language, focusing on improvement rather than perfection. Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset can be a powerful lens through which to view providing feedback, as it focuses on attitudes towards failure as a part of learning, stressing potential and improvement rather than perfection. Multiple studies confirm that promoting a growth mindset can empower students to take initiative in their learning, build self-efficacy, be more resilient when facing difficulties, better regulate emotions, and persevere through stress and challenges. Instructors can encourage this mindset by framing failure as part of the learning process, praising effort over intelligence, avoiding negative language and insults, and reassuring students of their own capabilities. 

Oregon State University’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion requires the entire OSU community to commit to understanding how belonging can be nurtured and how inclusion can be extended or denied. When all students, employees, and community members have a seat at the table and feel welcomed, valued, and included, then we are succeeding. A recent update from Executive Director of Student Experiences & Engagement Damoni Wright and Associate Provost & Dean of Students Kevin Dougherty, sums it up well, “Social justice work cannot be done in a vacuum and cannot be done only in one or two departments, it must be understood, committed to, and integrated into every facet of our work, and we are dedicated to continuing our efforts to make this happen… Through our work together, we will continue to positively change our campus and support student success.” This is a goal we all contribute to daily, in many large and small ways, and is work that must continue to be prioritized and supported.


Sources

Ally for Canvas | Learn@OregonState

Belonging and Emotional Safety – Casel Schoolguide 

Building Inclusivity and Belonging | Division of Student Affairs

College Student’s Sense of Belonging

Creating a Safe and Respectful Environment in Our Nation’s Classrooms 

Cultural Centers | Oregon State University

Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution

Ecampus Essentials – Standards and Principles – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Establishing Community in Online Courses: A Literature Review 

Growth Mindset in the Higher Education Classroom | Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research

Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence | Institutional Diversity 

Mission, Vision and Values | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Online Teaching Principles – Standards and Principles – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Oregon Department of Education 

OSU Search Advocate Program

Peer Mentor Program | TRiO | Oregon State University

Social Justice Education Initiative 

State of Oregon Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan

Student Academic Experience Survey 2022

The UDL Guidelines

Update Syllabus – Term Checklist and Forms – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds | Oregon State University

Utilizing Inclusive and Affirming Language | Institutional Diversity

“Belonging is a universal human need that is fundamentally linked to learning and well-being. It describes an individual’s experience of feeling that they are, or are likely to be, accepted and respected as a valued contributor in a specific environment.”           

Structures for Belonging: A Synthesis of Research on Belonging-Supportive Learning Environments
image of Maslow's pyramid of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a helpful framework when discussing belonging, which falls in the middle, at level three, just above the basics for survival (level one: air, water, food, shelter) and safety (level 2: health, employment, family, security). 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Have you heard the word belonging recently in reference to students and employees? At OSU, it seems to be popping up frequently in conversations and discussions, onboardings and trainings, online and off, becoming a buzzword for those concerned with teaching and learning, recruitment and outreach, employee satisfaction, and student success, and has become a focal point of our ongoing efforts towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. This increased focus on the concept of belonging at OSU is reflected in the university’s 2018 Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence, and is echoed by the 2021 Oregon Department of Education’s passing of the Every Student Belongs rule, which states, “It is the policy of the State Board of Education that all students, employees, and visitors in public schools are entitled to learn, work, and participate in an environment that is safe and free from discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.” These initiatives reflect a growing understanding that traditionally prevailing systems of power have historically marginalized certain groups and excluded them from many realms of life, including education, and prioritize a commitment to changing the status quo explicitly and with intention. 

At Ecampus, belonging is an area of active study, and our effort to extend the feeling of belonging to our online students is an important part of our mission, vision, & values and our own Inclusive Excellence Strategic Plan’s goals. We realize that our Ecampus students come from a wide range of backgrounds, seek online learning for a variety of reasons, and comprise higher numbers of students from historically marginalized backgrounds, and thus, combined with the nature of online learning, can feel increased isolation and less of a sense of belonging than their on-campus peers. 

What is belonging and why is it important?

Belonging is a complex, multi-layered, and changeable quality that is nonetheless very important for student success. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places belonging in the category of psychological needs, just above the basic needs including food, water, air, safety, and shelter. While there are many definitions, the concept of belonging generally encompasses feeling safe, appreciated, welcomed, valued, and respected in a given situation. Humans learn to search for and interpret signals that they belong or do not belong when entering into new situations or contexts. Marginalized groups have had to learn to be cognizant of where and when they could expect to be excluded and on the alert for cues signaling such. Traditionally, educational institutions have been places of exclusionary practices, often closed to large groups in both policy and practice. Students from marginalized populations, facing this problematic history of exclusion, may be looking for signals and signs that indicate the extent to which they are valued and respected as members of the school community. Students may not be sure they will be accepted in institutions, departments, courses, and other school environments and may be consciously or unconsciously searching for such clues as reassurance that they do, in fact, belong. 

Belonging is important for student success because it conveys a host of positive benefits and is a crucial aspect of educational accomplishment. When students find welcoming, inclusive attitudes, see others like themselves being accepted and thriving, and are made to feel safe, protected, supported, and valued, their sense of belonging increases, which in turn allows them to relax and be confident sharing more of their full selves. Students who have a strong sense of belonging show increased academic performance, better attendance, persistence, retention, and motivation, and less likelihood of dropping out. Dr. Terrill Strayhorn, Professor of Urban Education and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College, in his book College Student’s Sense of Belonging, concludes that “deprivation of belonging in college prevents achievement and wellbeing, while satisfaction of college students’ sense of belonging is a key to educational success for all students.” 

In education, as in our society at large, belonging is often related to larger systems that privilege and prefer certain groups and their ideas, beliefs, and ways of being. Those whose race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender, class, indigeneity, language, or ability are not of the majority are especially likely to be anxious and “on alert” to othering, exclusion, bullying, and stereotyping. This can have dramatic negative short and long term effects, including lowered cognitive capacity, increased stress, and reduced persistence and achievement. Students who lack a sense of belonging may feel uncomfortable in class or group work, unable to concentrate, and may experience self-consciousness and worry, which makes it that much more difficult to attain higher-level needs such as self-confidence, recognition, respect, fulfillment, and achievement. When students face active discrimination, bullying, or other forms of harassment, they may become depressed, choose to disengage, drop courses, or discontinue studying. With such dire consequences, taking the time to understand and assist in ensuring all OSU students are made to feel welcomed and accepted is well worth the effort. 

Why do online students sometimes feel less of a sense of belonging? 

There are many contributing factors to the disparity between online and traditional students’ development of a sense of belonging, starting with the very nature of the modality in which they study. Students living and studying on campus often have more frequent contact with instructors, campus staff, and other students, both structured and impromptu, providing opportunities to build relationships that can enhance their sense of community and belonging. The pacing of on-campus courses tends to be predictable, with regular meetings during which students often have the chance to ask questions (and receive answers quickly) and get to know fellow students and instructors. Instructors have dedicated class time to review important concepts, check understanding, and provide opportunities for students to get to know them and their fellow students. The traditional on-campus experience is geared towards taking a diverse group of students and building a cohesive community in many ways- students have a wide array of support services available to them, many activities, sports, and clubs they can join, and have a host of opportunities to participate in the rich culture of OSU and in academic and social communities, most of which are easily accessible on campus. Indeed, the very nature of on-campus learning seeks to provide a community for traditional students, many of whom are young and leaving their own homes and communities for the first time.

In contrast, Ecampus courses are asynchronous, featuring no scheduled meeting times, as our students live around the USA and the world. While this format allows for increased access for students who cannot attend in person, the lack of face-to-face interaction can make it difficult for both students and instructors to make personal connections. Unless their courses are carefully designed to provide chances for interaction, conversation, collaboration, and community building, online students may not often interact with their instructors or peers. Online students can experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disengagement, which can greatly affect their sense of belonging as an OSU student as well as their success and performance. 

Complicating things even further is the tendency to experience digital miscommunication, the concept that humans are less able to infer tone, underlying sentiment, and in general not understand nuance when communicating by text and online, to some extent due to the lack of context and/or visual clues one gets when interacting face to face. A 2016 literature review on the topic of establishing community in online courses found digital communication to be a consistent issue, noting “…the absence of visual meaning-making cues such as gesture, voice tone, and immediate interaction can frustrate students and lead to feelings of isolation and disconnectedness in an online classroom” and recommended that instructors who teach online learn the nuances of these different communication needs. 

It must be noted that some online students, who may be older, working full or part time, caring for family, or otherwise already leading (sometimes overly) full lives do not particularly want or need the sense of community that younger traditional students may seek out from their university. They may have little time to devote to community building and little interest in superfluous interaction, shying away from an increased social burden they may not have time and energy to fully commit to. Since we cannot know in advance the detailed makeup of our student body, planning with an assumption that creating belonging is an important aspect of our approach serves online students best.

Stay tuned for Part 2: What can we do to help? for research-based strategies you can use to improve belonging and inclusion.


Sources

Ally for Canvas | Learn@OregonState

Belonging and Emotional Safety – Casel Schoolguide 

Building Inclusivity and Belonging | Division of Student Affairs

College Student’s Sense of Belonging

Creating a Safe and Respectful Environment in Our Nation’s Classrooms 

Cultural Centers | Oregon State University

Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution

Ecampus Essentials – Standards and Principles – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Establishing Community in Online Courses: A Literature Review 

Growth Mindset in the Higher Education Classroom | Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research

Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence | Institutional Diversity 

Mission, Vision and Values | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Online Teaching Principles – Standards and Principles – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Oregon Department of Education 

OSU Search Advocate Program

Peer Mentor Program | TRiO | Oregon State University

Social Justice Education Initiative 

State of Oregon Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan

Student Academic Experience Survey 2022

The UDL Guidelines

Update Syllabus – Term Checklist and Forms – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds | Oregon State University

Utilizing Inclusive and Affirming Language | Institutional Diversity

Wooden sign with the word welcome on it.
Wooden sign with the word welcome on it.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” ~ Will Rogers

As Winter Break has begun it’s rapid decent into the start of a new term, it’s time to take a look at how we will welcome our students back to school in the new year. Winter term brings new beginnings for students as their papers now contain the date 2024. Maybe they’ve made resolutions to do homework on time, or read every last page you request, or just be more present, whatever it is, that first message or impression from you in the new term sets the tone for the class. I’m sure that everyone wants to start a class off on a positive note, so let’s look at 5 ways you can create an informational, welcoming, and inclusive message to start the term/semester off right.

  1. Welcoming tone
  2. Talk about your class
  3. Offer support (and remind them to review the syllabus!)
  4. How to get started
  5. Inspire them

Create a Welcoming Tone

I don’t know about you but when I think back to the professors and teachers that I enjoyed learning from, I remember who they were and how they communicated with the class. They weren’t just an educated, knowledgable, and smart person, they were personable too. Empathy for their students, calling out the fact that we all have a bad day from time to time or might have just missed a deadline made it not seem daunting if we had to come “begging” for an extension. It didn’t seem like begging, it was known and called out that it could happen. Give your students the ease as you recognize them as people and not just a name on a roster.

Talk About the Class

Just think, a brand new set of classes, so many new syllabi to read and materials to devour. Hype your class up by talking about exciting topics, real world applications, and maybe mention an assignment or two that they’ll be working on.

Offer Support

We know that each of our students begins our class with a different set of circumstances on the other side of that screen. With that in mind, including a reference to support for these students can be helpful in letting them know the resources are there and it’s ok to use them. Mention your syllabus, the getting started or introduction module, and make sure they know resources are listed and available in all of those places and not only for your class but for all those other things that life tosses their way.

How to Get Started

So much information is available at the start of a new term. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start! Wait, what happens when it’s before the term starts? Can we help our students prepare for their classes ahead of time and maybe ease their mind a little bit? How about a Canvas email to your students that introduces them before the term starts to their upcoming class. You could include information about if the class is published already, even if it’s just the welcome page and what OSU Ecampus calls the “Start Here” module that includes information about the class (syllabus) and resources that they have access to as Ecampus students. In that same email, you can help them to figure out where they should start. By telling them directly, and maybe even providing a link, you can give them the information to get started with less anxiety as they know they’re starting where you think they should.

Inspire them

Your excitement about working with them often evokes excitement and positive anticipation of a great class. Share with them a quote or why you love this topic and maybe give them an interesting fact that can pique their curiosity. The point here is to get them inspired and excited to learn.

Example

Dear Students,

Welcome to QLT 123: Introduction to Quilting! My name is Professor Seam and I’ll be your instructor for this online course. We are going to learn so much this term, the first three months of quilting are simply mind-blowing as you move from not knowing how to start to drafting a mockup of one you’d like to make, and finishing your first quilt! We’ll explore the basics, you’ll have opportunities to show off your success and funny failures (because guess what, they happen!) and in the end, you’ll get to showcase all of your hard work in your finished quilt. Guess what? There are no textbooks for this class! Instead, you get order in some fun fabric (but not yet!) Hop into our Canvas site and take a look at the syllabus, find resources for support if you are in need, introduce yourself in the first discussion board and take a look at what’s in the first module. We’ll start next week when the term begins so get ready to sew the seams of creativity because you’ve just started the most sew-perb quilting class and I can’t wait to embark on this journey with you.
-Professor Seam

Share out!

Got a great welcome message? Share with us in the comments!

By: Julie Jacobs, Jana King, Dana Simionescu, Tianhong Shi

Overview

A recent scenario with our course development team challenged our existing practices with lecture media. Formerly, we had encouraged faculty to include only slides with narration in their lecture videos due to concerns about increasing learners’ cognitive load. Students voiced their hope for more instructor presence in courses, and some instructors started asking about including video of themselves inserted into their lectures. This prompted us to begin thinking about instructor presence in lecture videos more deeply: why were we discouraging faculty from including their faces in lecture videos? While our practices were informed by research-based media theory, we also recognized those theories might be outdated. 

We began to explore the latest research with the following question in mind: does visual instructor presence in lectures increase extraneous cognitive load in learners? We use the phrase “visual instructor presence” to refer to lecture videos where an instructor’s moving image is seen giving the lecture, composited together with their slides. This technique is also commonly referred to as “picture-in-picture”, as seen in the image below.

Image 1: Adam Vester, instructor in College of Business, in his lecture design for BA 375 Applied Quantitative Methods.

A task force was created to review recent research on visual instructor presence and cognitive load, specifically in lecture-type videos. Our literature review included a look at leading multimedia learning scholar Richard E. Mayer’s newest group of principles. We also reviewed more than 20 other scholarly articles, many of which were focused on learner perception, motivation & engagement, and emotion. 

Findings

According to recent work in multimedia learning, research in this area should focus on three areas, namely learning outcomes (“what works/ what does not work?”), learning characteristics (“when does it work?”), and learning process (“how does it work?”) (Mayer, 2020). Below are our conclusions from the 23 research articles we reviewed regarding instructional videos, attempting to answer the above questions of “what works”, “when does it work”, and “how does it work”.  

  1. This review of recent literature shows no evidence that visual instructor presence increases extraneous cognitive load. 
  2. Students tend to prefer lectures with visual instructor presence – they report increased satisfaction and better perceived learning, which can boost motivation and engagement. 
  3. While some studies find no difference in performance outcomes when visual instructor presence is utilized, others found increased performance outcomes with visual instructor presence. Proposed explanations: embodiment techniques such as gestures, eye contact, and body movement which fosters generative processing (the cognitive processes required for making sense of the material); social cues can help direct the learners’ attention; increased motivation (as per point 2 above) contributes to better learning. 
  4. The effects may depend on the specific type of visual instructor presence (e.g., small picture-in-picture, green-screen, or lightboard) and the characteristics of the content (complex/difficult vs simpler/easier). 

Recommendations

Based on these findings, our team has decided to remove the default discouragement of instructors wishing to use picture-in-picture in lectures. If an instructor is interested in having their visual presence in the lectures, we encourage them to discuss this option with their Instructional Designer and Lecture Media Coordinator to determine if this style is a good fit for them and their content.

Image 2: Bryony DuPont, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering, utilizing visual instructor presence in her lecture design for ME 382 Introduction to Design.

We recommend considering the following points:

  • What is their presentation style? Do they tend to spend a lot of time talking over a slide or is there a lot of text or other action (e.g. software demo) happening in the video? If there’s a lot happening on the screen, perhaps it’s better to not put their video on top of it (the instructor video could be placed only at the beginning and/or end instead).
  • What type of content? Is it simple or more complex? For more visually complex content, a lightboard or digital notation without picture-in-picture may work better, to take advantage of the dynamic drawing principle and the gaze guidance principle. 
  • Is it a foreign language course? If so, it’s likely helpful for the learners to see the instructor’s mouth and body language. 
  • Is the instructor comfortable with being on video? If they’re not comfortable with it, it may not add value. This being said, our multimedia professionals can help make instructors more comfortable in front of the camera and coach them on a high-embodied style of lecturing. 

Since implementing these guidelines and working with an increased number of lectures with visual instructor presence, we also noticed that it works best when the instructor does not look and sound like they’re reading. Therefore, for people who like working with a script, we recommend practicing in advance so they can sound more natural and are able to enhance their presentation with embodiment techniques.

We would love to hear about your opinions or experiences with this type of video. Share them in the comments!

For a detailed summary of our findings and full citation list, please see the full Literature Review.


Image by: pingebat, licensed from Adobe Stock

As higher-ed professionals involved in course design, we have the honor, privilege, and responsibility of shaping the learning experiences for countless students. Among the many tools at our disposal, course mapping stands out as a fundamental technique that deserves a spotlight. Couse mapping fosters clarity, and showcases alignment between the learning outcomes/objectives and course materials, assessments and activities. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of course mapping in online higher-ed courses, highlighting its role in meeting the new requirements in the recently updated Quality Matters (QM) rubric 7th edition. Join us as we delve into the transformative power of course mapping, benefiting course developers, instructors, instructional designers, and learners alike.

The Big-Picture:

The updated QM rubric (7th edition) recognizes the strength of course maps as a design tool, and has now made them a required element for course review. To quote the QM rubric update workshop (2023), “the course map must include all of the following components mapped to one another so the connection between them is apparent: course learning [outcomes/] objectives, module learning outcomes/objectives, assessments, materials, activities, and tools.” At its core, course mapping involves creating a visual representation of the entire course curriculum, breaking it down into manageable units, and illustrating the relationships between various components. This visual often takes the form of a table, but many variations exist. Course mapping is a holistic approach, which provides a roadmap for instructors, course developers, and designers to create a comprehensive, cohesive and well-structured learning experience; and for students to easily navigate and find the content and assignments. By explicitly relating the aforementioned course components, course maps simply demonstrate alignment and make clear the purpose of each element as part of the larger picture. 

Orchestrating a Symphony of Learning & Student Success:

With the implementation of the new QM rubric (7th edition), course mapping has gained significant prominence as a means of ensuring alignment and coherence across the curriculum.  By mapping out the weekly outcomes/objecives, learning activities, materials, tools, and assessments, instructors can ensure that each component of the course aligns with the overall outcomes/objetcives. This process can highlight pathways for students to progress logically through the content. Additionally, course mapping facilitates coordination among multiple instructors or instructional designers involved in a course, enabling a consistent design and a more harmonic learning experience for students. Much like a conductor of an orchestra, a course map provides the nuanced direction to each section. Harmony in a design means that elements are unified. Learners benefit from this because they more clearly connect their learning activities with a specific purpose. 

By imbuing the many learning activities with clear purpose (alignment to the outcomes/objectives), learners understand the work they are being asked to complete.  Mapping out course activities also provides instructors with a high-level view of their course, which helps ensure a balanced distribution of learning strategies, which can help accommodate a variety of learning needs. As a result, students are more likely to be engaged, motivated, and empowered to take ownership of their learning, which can lead to improved learning. Course maps act as a first step towards transparent course design, which empowers learners to take initiative and work through problems independently. If we give them all the pieces and help them make connections, they can forge their own pathway to success.

Efficiency and Continuous Improvement:

Course mapping also acts as a vehicle for efficiency and continuous improvement in higher education courses. By visualizing the entire course, instructors and instructional designers can identify potential gaps, redundancies, or misalignments, leading to more effective course revisions. Moreover, the iterative nature of course mapping promotes reflection and collaboration among course developers, instructors, instructional designers, and course reviewers, fostering a culture of continuous improvement. 

Additionally, for instructors the course map then acts as a blue print for the course, which can enhance the connection between the course elements, which can also be helpful if course outcomes/objectives need to change. For instance, courses with detailed maps might be more efficiently adapted, as instructors can easily identify parts of their courses that will need to change and know where to focus their energy.

Assessment and Accreditation – Meeting Quality Standards:

Accreditation bodies and quality assurance agencies like QM place a strong emphasis on clearly defined learning outcomes/objectives and assessment strategies. Course mapping provides a comprehensive framework for demonstrating alignment with quality standards or accreditation competencies. By mapping learning outcomes/objectives to assessments, instructors can provide evidence of student achievement and ensure that all necessary areas are adequately covered. This not only satisfies accreditation requirements but also enhances transparency and accountability within the course, program, and even the institution. At OSU Ecampus, we use the Ecampus Essentials list to ensure we are creating high-quality online and hybrid learning experiences. All Ecampus courses are expected to meet the essential standards and are strongly encouraged to meet the exemplary standards.

Conclusion:

As higher education professionals, we have a shared responsibility to provide transformative courses and programs that prepare learners for the challenges of the future. Course mapping stands as a crucial tool in achieving this goal by fostering alignment, engagement, and continuous improvement. As the new Quality Matters (QM) rubric (7th edition) recognizes, course mapping is an essential practice in creating intentional and effective courses. By investing time and effort in course mapping, instructors and instructional designers can craft coherent and purposeful learning experiences that empower students and maximize their potential for success.

Let’s embrace course mapping as a tool for success in online higher education, ensuring that our courses are meticulously crafted, intentional, and impactful. 

Course Mapping Tools:

  1. The Online Course Mapping Guide
  2. OSU Ecampus Course Planning Chart
  3. Berkeley Digital Learning Services Course Map Template (Public Use)
  4. University of Arizona Course Map Templates

Course Map Samples Shared in the QM Rubric Update:

  1. ACCT 3551 Course Map
  2. Course Alignment Map for HIS 121 American History to 1865

References:

Beckham, R., Riedford, K., & Hall, M. (2017). Course Mapping: Expectations Visualized. Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 13(10), e471–e476. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2017.07.021 

Digital Learning Hub in the Teaching + Learning Commons at UC San Diego. (n.d.). What is a Course Map? The Online Course Mapping Guide. Retrieved July 5, 2023, from https://www.coursemapguide.com/what-is-a-course-map

Quality Matters. (2023, May 22). QM Course Worksheet, HE Seventh Edition. Retrieved July 5, 2023, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/16d1mDaII_kgXvyjeT_brn-TKqACnr_OY_D_r5SnJlC0/edit 

This month brings the new and improved QM Higher Education Rubric, Seventh Edition! To see the detailed changes, you can order the new rubric or take the Rubric Update Session, which is a self-paced workshop that will be required for all QM role holders. In the meantime, if you’d like a short summary of the revisions, continue reading below.

The main changes include:

  • The number of Specific Review Standards has increased from 42 to 44.
  • The points value scheme was also slightly revised, with the total now being 101.
  • A few terminology updates were implemented.
  • The descriptions and annotations for some of the general and specific standards were revised.
  • The instructions were expanded and clarified, with new additions for synchronous and continuous education courses.

Most of the standards (general or specific) have undergone changes consisting of revised wording, additional special instructions, and/or new examples to make the standards clearer and emphasize the design of inclusive and welcoming courses. In addition, some standards have received more substantial revisions – here are the ones that I found the most significant:

Standard 3: There is a new Specific Standard: SRS 3.6: “The assessments provide guidance to the learner about how to uphold academic integrity.” This standard is met if “the course assessments incorporate or reflect how the institution’s academic integrity policies and standards are relevant to those assessments.” SRS 3.6 is the main addition to the 7th edition, and a very welcome one, especially considering the new complexities of academic integrity policies.

Standard 4: SRS 4.5 (“A variety of instructional materials is used in the course.”) has received an important annotation revision – this standard is met if at least one out of three of the following types of variety are present in the course: variety of type of media; different perspectives/representations of ideas; diverse, non-stereotypical representations of persons or demographic groups. I was really happy to see this clarification, since it’s always been a little difficult to evaluate what constitutes “variety”, and reviewers will certainly appreciate the recognition of diversity of people and ideas.

Standard 8: SRS 8.3 was divided into two separate Specific Standards: SRS 8.3 “Text in the course is accessible.” and SRS 8.4 “Images in the course are accessible.” At the same time 8.5 (former 8.4) was turned into “Video and audio content in the course is accessible.” This should allow for a more nuanced evaluation of the various accessibility elements, and it is nice to see the focus on captions for both video and audio materials. Moreover, these three standards (SRS 8.3, 8.4, and 8.5) now include publisher-created content – this is an important step forward in terms of advocating for all educational materials to be made accessible upfront.

In addition to the standards themselves, some changes were made to the Course Format Chart, the Course Worksheet, and the Glossary. Notably, a course/alignment map is now required with the Course Worksheet – a change that is sure to spark delight among QM reviewers. The definitions of activities and assessments were also revised to clarify the distinction between the two – another much-needed modification that should eliminate a common point of confusion.

Overall, the new edition brings about clearer instructions, more relevant examples, and a deeper inclusion of diversity, accessibility, and academic integrity. Reviewers and course designers should find it easier to evaluate or create high quality courses with this updated guidance.

Image by Benjamin Abara from Pixabay 

My family and I were preparing for a move. We packed up some of our things, removing extraneous items from our walls and surfaces and preparing our house to list and show. Not willing to part with these things, we rented a small storage unit to temporarily warehouse all this extra “stuff.” Well, as it turned out, we ended up not moving at all, and after a few months went to clear out the storage unit and retrieve our extra things. The funny thing was, we could hardly remember what had gone in there, and as it turns out, we did not miss most of the items we had packed away. We ended up selling most of what was in that storage unit, and shortly thereafter, we did even more “spring cleaning.” One of the bedrooms, which also doubles an office, needed particular attention. The space was dysfunctional, in that multiple doors and drawers were blocked from fully opening. After a little purging and reorganization this room now functions beautifully, with enough space to open every door and drawer. I have been calling this process “moving back into our own house,” and it’s been a joy to rethink, reorganize, and reclaim our living spaces.

Course Design Connection

As I have been working with more instructors who are redeveloping existing courses, I have been trying to bring this mindset into my instructional design work. How can we reclaim our online learning spaces and make them more inviting and functional? How can we help learners open all the proverbial doors and operate fully within the learning environment? You guessed it: While our first instinct might be to add more to the course, the answer might lie in the other direction. With a little editing and a keen eye on alignment, we can very intentionally remove things from our courses that might be needless or even distracting. We can also rearrange our pages and modules to maximize our learner’s attention.

Memory and Course Design

Our working memories, according to Cowan (2010), can only store 3-5 meaningful items at a time. Thus, it becomes essential to consider what is genuinely necessary on any given LMS page. If we focus on helping learners to achieve the learning outcomes when choosing the content to keep in each module, we can intentionally remove distractors. There can be a place for tangential or supplemental information, but those items should not live in the limelight. To help get us started on this “cleaning process,” we can ask ourselves a few simple questions. Are there big-ticket items (assignments, discussions, readings) that are not directly helping learners reach the outcomes? Are we formatting pages and arranging content in beneficial and progressive ways? Might we express longer bodies of text in ways that are more concisely or clearly? Can we break text up with related visuals? Below are some tips to help guide your process as you “clean” up your course and direct your learners where to focus.

Cut out the Bigger Extraneous Content

It is simple to assume that for your learners to meet the course outcomes, they must read and comprehend many things and complete a wide variety of assignments. When planning your learning activities, it’s crucial to keep in mind the limits of the brain and also that giving learners opportunities to practice applying content will be more successful than asking them to memorize and restate it. For courses with dense content, lean into your course outcomes to guide your editing process. Focusing on the objectives can help you remove extraneous readings and activities.  This will allow your learners to concentrate on the key points. (Cowden & Sze, 2012)

Review Instructions

For the items you choose to keep in your course, reviewing assignment instructions, and discussion prompts is helpful.  Consider inviting a non-expert to read these items.  An outside eye might help you to simplify what you are asking your learners to accomplish by calling to your attention any points of confusion. You may be tempted to add more detail, but try to figure out where you can remove text when possible. Why use a paragraph to explain something that only needs a few sentences? Simplifying your language can enable learners to get to the point faster. (For more on this, see the post by intern Aimee L. Lomeli Garcia about  Improving Readability). When reviewing your instructions and prompts, think about what learners want to know:

·       What should they pay attention to?

·       Where do they start?

·       What do they do next?

·       What is expected?

·       How are they being assessed/graded?

(Grennan, 2018)

Utilize Best Practices for Formatting

Use native formatting tools like styles, headers, and lists to help visually break up content and make it more approachable. Here are some examples:

If I were to list my favorite animals here without a list, it would look like this: dogs, turtles, hummingbirds, frogs, elephants, and cheetahs. 

Suppose I give you that same list using a header and number list format. In that case, it becomes much easier to digest mentally, and it looks nicer on the page:

Julie’s Favorite Animals

  1. Dogs
  2. Turtles
  3. Hummingbirds
  4. Frogs
  5. Elephants
  6. Cheetahs

Provide High-Level Overviews

If an assignment does need a more thorough explanation, and your instructions are running long, you can always create a high-level overview, calling out the main points of the page. You could place this in a call-out box or its own section (preferably at the top). This is where learners can quickly look for reminders about what to do next and how to do it. Providing a high-level overview alongside detailed instructions will cater to a variety of learning preferences and help set up your learners for success.

Module Organization

Scaling up beyond single pages and assignments to module organization, consider the order you want learners to encounter ideas and accomplish tasks. Don’t be afraid to move pages around within your modules to help learners find the most efficient and helpful pathway through your material (Shift Elearning, n.d.).

Wrapping It Up

The culture of “more is better” is pervasive, and it’s almost always easier to add rather than to remove information. In online learning, when we buy into the “culture of more” we can impede the success of our learners. But more isn’t always better; sometimes more is just more. Instead, don’t be afraid to dust off that delete button and start reclaiming and reorganizing your course for ultimate learner success. Sometimes less is best. For more on the art of subtraction, see Elisabeth McBrien’s blog post from February of 2022.

References

Cowan, N. (2010). The magical mystery four. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277

Cowden, P., & Sze, S. (2012). ONLINE LEARNING: THE CONCEPT OF LESS IS MORE. Allied Academies International Conference.Academy of Information and Management Sciences.Proceedings, 16(2), 1-6. https://oregonstate.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/online-learning-concept-less-is-more/docview/1272095325/se-2

Grennan, H. (2018, April 30). Why less is more in Elearning. Belvista Studios – eLearning Blog. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from http://blog.belvistastudios.com/2018/04/why-less-is-more-in-elearning.html

Lomeli Garcia, A. L. (2023, January 17). Five Tips on Improving Readability in Your Courses. Ecampus Course Development and training. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2023/01/17/five-tips-on-improving-readability-in-your-courses/

McBrien, E. (2022, February 24). Course design challenge: Try subtraction. Ecampus Course Development and training. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2022/02/24/course-design-challenge-try-subtraction/

Parker, R. (2022, June 30). Why less is more for e-learning course materials. Synergy Learning. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://synergy-learning.com/blog/why-less-is-sometimes-more-when-it-comes-to-your-e-learning-course-materials/

Shift Elearning. (n.d.). The art of simplification in Elearning Design. The Art of Simplification in eLearning Design. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/the-art-of-simplification-in-elearning-design

University of Waterloo, Queen’s University, & University of Toronto; and Conestoga Colleg (n.d.). Module 3: Quality course structure and content. In High Quality Online Courses . essay, Pressbooks Open Library, from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/hqoc/chapter/3-1-module-overview/

The idea that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-world contexts is the basis of Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). Learning by doing is at its core, and as a high-impact practice, there is increasingly more emphasis on experiential learning in higher education. There is plenty of evidence that supports the benefits of this type of learning. It affords students an opportunity to connect knowledge to authentic situations and increases learner autonomy, motivation, and overall satisfaction (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). Many OSU Ecampus Courses feature such experiences. In fact, OSU’s Honors College requires all courses to include experiential learning components, and this is increasingly the case across disciplines at OSU. 

What does experiential learning look like? 

Kolb's Cycle of Experiential Learning
The Experiential Learning Cycle, image by Izhaki via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Many of us may think of community engagement, project-based learning, or practicums when we consider what constitutes an experiential learning experience. While these are solid examples of ELT in practice, experiential learning can take many forms across learning environments. David Kolb describes experiential learning as a four-stage process in his cycle of learning (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). According to Kolb, learning is a process where knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Students can engage with the cycle at any point in the experience as long as they engage with all four stages. The flexibility of hybrid and online learning presents rich possibilities for incorporating this process. The four stages of Kolb’s experiential learning process include:

  • Concrete learning: engage in a new experience or critically interpret a past experience. 
  • Reflective observation: use experience and background knowledge to understand the relevance or meaning of the experience. 
  • Abstract conceptualization: gain a new understanding of the experience by adjusting thinking based on reflection. 
  • Active experimentation: engage experimentally by applying new insights to the situation in a practical way.

Kolb’s theory is not without limitations in that it does not provide clear answers about how collaboration between learners affects reflection, and it doesn’t account for learning that occurs without reflection (Psychology, 2022). While his model isn’t the final word on all of the ways learners make sense of the world, it does provide a good starting point for understanding and designing effective real-world learning opportunities. 

What makes a good experiential learning experience? 

Regardless of the activity, both the experience and the learning are fundamental in experiential learning scenarios, and the ongoing engagement of both the instructor and the student is critical. In experiential environments, students take ownership of their learning process by taking a more active role such as in posing questions, experimenting, and constructing meaning through their persistent participation in the experience. The role of the instructor, on the other hand, is to ensure that the experience is of high quality and in alignment with the stated learning outcomes while also supporting the learner to develop autonomy in using the principles of experiential learning as defined by The National Society of Experiential Education (NSEE)

Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities 

  1. Intention: the activity is structured around a formal process and the purpose and rationale for why the activity was chosen is transparent and clear to students.
  2. Preparedness and planning: students understand expectations for engaging in the learning experience and have the necessary background knowledge and preparation to participate in the planned learning with support throughout the process. 
  3. Authenticity: the learning experience is relevant and designed in response to an authentic context or situation in collaboration with those affected by it. 
  4. Reflection: the experience is transformative and allows for knowledge discovery through a process of making and testing decisions around expected or observed outcomes and through consideration of assumptions and implications related to prior and present learning. 
  5. Orientation and training: learner support and guidance include sufficient background preparation needed for successful achievement of learning outcomes. 
  6. Monitoring and continuous improvement: students receive continuous feedback and support to enhance the learning experience and ensure achievement of learning outcomes. 
  7. Assessment and evaluation: students receive helpful and timely feedback from the instructor and any external facilitators, and monitoring and adjustments to process are made as appropriate to ensure achievement of outcomes.
  8. Acknowledgement: All students and external stakeholders or facilitators are recognized for their work, progress, and contribution to the experience. 

Experiential Learning in OSU Ecampus Courses 

The following examples illustrate a small selection of the many creative experiential learning opportunities OSU faculty developers have incorporated into their online and hybrid courses in collaboration with Ecampus instructional designers. 

  • Build a community of writers online. Students read, critique, write, edit, revise, and share original pieces of creative writing. An activity modeled after the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and implemented in a creative writing course.
  • Discover and Promote well-being in an Online Community. Students in a philosophy class engage in activities in their local community and online to talk about topics around well-being. They then reflect on those experiences and dialogue before compiling a “happiness toolkit” and sharing it with peers. 
  • Explore health and fitness assessment techniques used to measure cardiovascular health. Through a series of hands-on labs, students monitor volunteers’ exercise regimes and calculate cardiovascular fitness values to make recommendations based on the data collected. 
  • Collaborate in a team to study and analyze management case studies. Students work through complex and ambiguous problems to solve a workplace challenge and find solutions before participating in an authentic human resources simulation.
  • Write and perform music. Students in a performance-based music course write and perform original pieces of music.
  • Examine poverty and its effect on students’ local communities. Students complete a public health scavenger hunt guided by specific questions, reflection, and peer collaboration. They then create a guide describing public health issues and potential solutions.
  • Investigate the necessary conditions for designing effective teams and work groups, including best practices and processes needed for maximum productivity, strategies to resolve common issues in teams, and methods to evaluate team performance. Students then apply their learning by leading a team in real life. 
  • Analyze and conduct research on a local public health issue. Students partner with community organizations in their area to identify needs and apply principles of public health to authentic contexts.

The list is far from exhaustive. New courses featuring experiential learning are currently in development across disciplines. Faculty interested in learning more about how to get started learning by doing in hybrid and online courses can learn more by checking out the Ecampus experiential learning resources page.

Resources

Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://www.nsee.org/index.php?option=com_content

Inside Higher Ed, Roberts, J., & Welton, A. (2022, August 3). The foundational best practices in experiential learning. Inside Higher Ed. 

Kolb, AY & Kolb, DA 2017, The experiential educator: Principles and practices of experiential learning, EBLS Press, Kaunakakai, HI.

Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about the experiential learning cycle.

Proposing Experiential Learning Opportunities (ELOS). (n.d.). Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning, Revised March 2019.

Psychology, P. (2022, December 6). Experiential Learning (Definition + Examples) | Practical Psychology. Practical Psychology.

Learning outcomes (LOs) are used in instructional design to describe the skills and knowledge that students should have at the end of a course or learning unit, and to design assessments and activities that support these goals. It is widely agreed that specific, measurable outcomes are essential for planning instruction; however, some educators question the benefits of explicitly presenting them to students. I have been asked (and wondered myself): “What is the point of listing learning outcomes in the course?” “How do they help learning? “Do students even read them?”

So, I went on a quest for research that attempted to answer such questions. I was particularly interested in unit/module-level outcomes, as those are the ones that directly steer the content, and students see them throughout the course. Here’s a brief summary of what I found.

Note: the studies use the terms “learning outcome”, “learning objective”, or “learning goal” – they all refer to the same concept: a specific and measurable description of the skills and knowledge that students are expected to have at the end of a learning unit/period of study. At OSU we use the term “outcomes”.

What Does the Research Say?

Armbruster et al. (2009) redesigned an Introductory Biology course at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, using active learning and student-centered pedagogies, leading to increased student performance and satisfaction. One of the strategies used was to include explicit learning goals in the lecture slides, and labeling exam and quiz questions with the related goals. Students’ attitudes towards the course were assessed via a questionnaire and comparison of university-administered student evaluations. Students were asked to rank lecture components in terms of helpfulness to learning, and the authors found that one of the highest-ranking elements was the inclusion of explicit learning goals.

Simon and Taylor (2009) surveyed 597 students from computer science and microbiology and immunology courses at the University of British Columbia, where instructors presented learning goals at the beginning of each lecture or topic area. The questions were open and the answers coded into a number of categories, which helped them identify several values of goals. The main value was “knowing what I need to know”: students reported that the goals showed them how to focus their efforts and felt that the goals “allowed them to organize the information more effectively and be more expertlike in their approach to the class” (Simon & Taylor, 2009, p.55). The authors did not find any difference between presenting the goals before each lecture versus at the beginning of the unit/topic area.

Brooks et al. (2014) examined students’ views of learning outcomes at the University of Leicester, UK. First, they surveyed 918 students taking Biological Sciences, English and Medicine courses. They found that 81% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that learning outcomes are useful learning aids. Additionally, 46% found LOs more useful as their courses progressed, and 49% reported that they engaged more with the LOs as the course progressed. The authors also investigated when LOs are most useful, and found that the most common answer (46%) was when reviewing the material. Moreover, 49% of students reported that LOs can only be fully understood at the end of a module. The researchers followed up on these results with a focus group, which confirmed that students use LOs in various ways and at various points during the course.

Osueke et al. (2018) looked into students’ use and perceptions of learning objectives at University of Georgia. 185 students in an undergraduate Introduction to Biochemistry and Molecular Biology course took part in the study. The instructors included instructions in the syllabus, which they also stated on the first day of class: “Focus on the learning objectives. The exams will assess your accomplishment of the learning objectives. Use the learning objectives as a guide for what to focus on when you are completing assignments and studying for exams.” Students completed two assignments requiring them to explain their use of the LOs. The researchers found that many students (33.8%) reported they had been instructed on how to use LOs to study – these instructions ranged from passively “look over” to using them as a study guide. The ways students used the LOs were: as questions to answer (47.4%), as a resource for studying (24.1%), as a self-assessment tool (14.3%), and passive use (13.5%). When asked why they find the LOs helpful, students said that they help them: narrow down the information (57.1%); organize their studying (23.3%); communicate information (5.3%); monitor their understanding (4.5%); forced them to study (1.5%).

Sana et al. (2020) conducted three experiments aiming to find to what extent presenting the LOs improve retention of information. Participants were asked to read five passages on a neuroscience topic, and then they were tested on comprehension and retention. The experiments took place at McMaster University, Ontario and employed different participants, methods, materials, and procedures. They found that: interpolating LOs throughout the lesson (as opposed to all LOs presented at the beginning) improved learning compared to not including LOs, especially when students’ attention was explicitly directed to them; converting LOs into pretest questions (that students attempted to answer) further enhanced performance; multiple-choice and short answer questions were equally effective; and withholding feedback on pretests was more effective than providing feedback – the explanation proposed by the authors for this last finding was that students may be more motivated to seek the correct answers themselves, which causes further processing of the material.

Barnard et al. (2021) investigated students’ and academics’ perspectives on the purpose of learning objectives and approaches to assessment preparation. They conducted focus groups with participants from an undergraduate Psychology course at the University of Nottingham, UK. The students reported that LOs are useful for guidance, as they “use them to create direction for some of the learning and revision strategies” (Barnard et al., 2021, p. 679).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Good news! The findings of these studies suggest that many students do appreciate clear LOs and use them to guide their learning. The LOs help them understand what they are expected to know – thus, students use them to focus their study, to review for an exam, and to self-check their knowledge.

As instructors and instructional designers, what can we do to help students take full advantage of LOs? Apart from having specific and measurable LOs, make sure that the LOs are well aligned with the activities, and make this alignment explicit. It may also be helpful to offer some guidance on how to use the LOs, for instance by prompting students to recap their learning at the end of a unit based on the LOs. Finally, we could turn the LOs into questions and use them as a pretest.

For more on creating and using LOs, check out the CBE—Life Sciences Education website, which has an informative guide, including a section on student use. 

Do you have any other ideas or resources on how to use learning outcomes to improve students’ experience and study habits? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

References

Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in Introductory Biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 8(3), 203–213. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.09-03-0025

Barnard, M., Whitt, E., & McDonald, S. (2021). Learning objectives and their effects on learning and assessment preparation: Insights from an undergraduate psychology course. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(5), 673–684. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1822281

Brooks, S., Dobbins, K., Scott, J. J. A., Rawlinson, M., & Norman, R. I. (2014). Learning about learning outcomes: The student perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 721–733. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2014.901964

Osueke, B., Mekonnen, B., & Stanton, J. D. (2018). How undergraduate science students use learning objectives to study. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v19i2.1510

Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. CBE Life Sciences Education, 19(3), ar43–ar43. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-11-0257

Simon, B., & Taylor, J. (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(2), 52–57. Retrieved from: https://www.colorado.edu/sei/sites/default/files/attached-files/what_is_the_value_of_course-specific_learning_goals.pdf

The following is a guest blog post from Aimee L. Lomeli Garcia, MLA. Aimee completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during the Fall of 2022.

Have you ever found yourself reading the same paragraph over and over again only to not retain any information? Or been so overwhelmed with the content you’re trying to read that you’re unable to absorb any of it? Odds are that it may not just be the content you’re trying to read; it may be the way the information is laid out. One way to help read and retain information is to make the text more readable.

Making information readable in your online course can seem overwhelming, but there are a few steps that you can take to make the content more digestible for students.

What is Readability?

First off – what is readability?  Readability is defined as “the ease in which a reader can comprehend text” (Calonia, 2020). Readability is a vital aspect to keep in mind as you design online courses. It not only makes the content of the class easier to read but increases the likelihood that students will understand the faculty’s content through lectures and discussions.  Better readability also decreases the risk of students misunderstanding the content, experiencing frustration, and increases the risk of students becoming disinterested in interacting with the course.  Though there are multiple options to make content more readable, there are five ways that you can adapt the content in your course: chunking content, using whitespace, avoiding wordiness, creating infographics, and utilizing color.

Chunking Content

What does “chunking content” mean? Chunking means breaking content into smaller chunks to make it easier to understand. This strategy originates from the field of cognitive psychology, which has proven that the human brain can “process, understand, and remember information better when broken into smaller pieces” (Moran, 2016).

Let’s demonstrate!

Below are the first two paragraphs of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:

Chapter One
The Boy Who Lived
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

When reading through this excerpt, it’s easy for your eyes to scan through the information without comprehending it.  There are a few common methods that will help with chunking your material: make your paragraphs shorter, add space between your paragraphs, and develop clear hierarchies of text.

Utilizing these methods, let’s make this paragraph more readable:

Chapter One

The Boy Who Lived

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Using Whitespace

Whitespace is defined as “empty space between and around elements of a page” (Babich, 2017). Whitespace creates a backdrop or frame to make your content easier to read.  Like chunking information, whitespace allows the eye to find information easily.  Take these slides for example:

“Plastic Coffee Cup on Book” by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Do you notice how much easier it is to read the different types of coffee drinks on the slide that has more white space? In a study done by Wichita State University, research confirmed that increasing the amount of whitespace actually improves reading comprehension!

Avoiding Wordiness

We’ve all experienced reading material that has excessive wordiness. In a manner of speaking, “wordiness means using more words than necessary within a sentence, especially short, vague words that do not add much meaning” (Eliminating Wordiness, 2022). Unfortunately, the overuse of unnecessary words can muddle ideas and cause confusion for students.

To decrease wordiness, focus on the key points you want to convey and use an active voice instead of a passive voice. Consider the following example:

All of the students who are new to this university are required ot attend an orientatin that has been scheduled for December 1st.”

When reading this sentence, it’s difficult to decipher what the necessary information is for the reader to understand. Instead, let’s focus on the key points and use an active voice in this sentence:

“New students are required to attend orientation on December 1st.”

Here, we eliminated the unnecessary wording, allowing readers to understand the message the sentence is trying to convey.

Use Visuals

Pictures speak louder than words! Using visual media, such as infographics, pictures, videos, animations, and films, make content easier for students to understand and could decrease the amount of writing you have to do for the class! You can obtain visual media through free online resources such as Pexels, Pixabay, or Openverse or created on your own (Canva is a favorite for me).

So, instead of using this:

Cells are the building blocks of life. A cell is composed of cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, and mitochondria. Cytoplasm is made up of a jell-like structure that contains the contents of the cell. The nucleus serves as the command center and is typically the largest part of the inside of the cell. Ribosomes are tiny parts of the cell that make proteins and mitochondria are jelly-bean shaped and create energy from the food we eat.

Try this!

Labeled animal cell
Image by brgfx on Freepik

Color

Color makes a significant impact on the readability of your page. This can be easy to overlook, as we typically use the standard black font/white background combination. However, adding color to words or backgrounds can bring attention to a message you’re trying to convey. There are ways to do this successfully and ways to add color poorly.

Color choice example - difficult to read.

Looking at the red text on the first example can be challenging for someone with no vision issues. Imagine the difficulty students who have a visual impairment can have – in particular, red/green color blindness.

On the second example, having a text color that is nearly the same shade as the background can make reading the text nearly impossible. It takes effort to read the quote in the example – can you imagine reading a scholarly journal with the same formatting?

Don’t let these examples dissuade you from trying text colors and backgrounds! To verify if a color combination is readable, visit the Contrast Checker page, enter the RGB or RYB codes and the website will notify you if the color combinations are reader-friendly.

Color showing higher contrast

Conclusion

Drafting your site can be overwhelming when considering readability, but there are several steps you can take to make the course content easier to understand.

  • Chunking content helps break text into smaller pieces so content is easier for students to digest.
  • Whitespace provides empty space for your content to pop
  • Avoiding wordiness can make your content and message clearer
  • Using visuals allows you to utilize pictures, videos, infographics, and other media to convey content
  • Strategic use of color on your page can make reading the material more comfortable and less straining for all students, including those with vision impairments.

Below are links to resources and tools if you’d like to dive into more information about readability and the impact it has on the success of students of online students. Thanks for reading!

References

Babich, N. (2017, June 30). The power of whitespace. UX Planet. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://uxplanet.org/the-power-of-whitespace-a1a95e45f82b

Calonia, J. (2020, September 2). What is readability? Grammarly Blog. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/readability/

Eliminating wordiness. (2022). Hamilton College. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/centers/writing/writing-resources/eliminating-wordiness

Moran, K. (2016, March 20). How chunking helps content processing. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/chunking/

Sabo, C. (2018, June 19). Getting started guide: using infographics for teaching and learning. Learning Technologies. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from http://www.codlearningtech.org/2018/06/19/getting-started-guide-using-infographics-for-teaching-and-learning/

Wordiness. (2022). Las Positas College Reading & Writing Center. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from http://www.laspositascollege.edu/raw/wordiness.php#:~:text=Wordiness%20means%20using%20more%20words,main%20focus%20of%20the%20sentence