How not to lecture: Simplifying the blend

This article will show an example of how to simplify the blended education.

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Course: HNH31006 Study Design and Interpretation in Epidemiology and Public Health
Period: Period 2 

Short Introduction and background

Introduction and story behind the emergence of this learning activity. What was the need, what issue/problem was the teacher facing and wanted to resolve? 

This course aims to challenge students to really think as epidemiologists. From experience teaching a fully online Master's program we know that students easily become either passive or overwhelmed when learning online. The face-to-face version of the course was always very interactive. We had individual and group assignments and lectures running parallel. But during COVID we had only two or three campus sessions. Therefore the course was rigorously redesigned, carefully choosing synchronous and a-synchronous activities so that everything contributes to the end goal. Lectures were thrown out and we gave students more responsibility. Almost everything worked well, but there were a few surprises too.

Student testimonials

"The best and most fun online course I have had since COVID."

"So also online you can really go in-depth and think hard together."

"The structure was super clear, from the beginning I knew what was expected each week. In other courses I sometimes feel hopelessly frustrated because I don't even know what I must do the next day."

Relevant tools / apps (software) or hardware used

Learning outcome(s)

What has been learned after this lesson/activity has been executed ?

To learn to think as epidemiologists. 

‘After successful completion of this course students are expected to be able to design, plan and review studies used in epidemiology and public health, taking methodological and practical considerations into account’. 

Lesson idea / Learning activity

Specific description and demonstration of the lesson idea/learning activity.

This showcase describes four redesign features that worked out well:

  1. Clear schedule overview: students have to understand the course design so they do not get lost
  2. Individual assignments in the first three weeks of the course: peer instruction
  3. Group work in the second half of the course: practice creating a study design and writing a grant proposal. Separate the two-course halves so students focus on one thing at a time
  4. Teacher feedback was timely and strictly focused on learning outcomes. No lecturing (except one guest lecture in the VCR).
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Figure 1: Organisation of the MS Teams

Figure 1: The course design, simplified to show the main features of the redesign to blended delivery. Students got this full course schedule at the beginning.


1. Clear schedule overview

In the first virtual classroom session, we explained the overall course design and the purpose behind it. We also provided a graphical overview of the schedule (a simplified version is shown in Figure 1, complete schedule available below in the Attachments). We repeated the graphical overview every week, so students had the big picture clear from the very beginning. We did not explain instructions in detail but left these in the Brightspace pages.

2. Individual assignments (weeks 1 to 3)

We normally teach this course through dialogue with students in lectures, but we did not think lectures could be interactive enough online. Therefore, we replaced these lectures with exercises aimed to let the students think.

For example, instead of lecturing on study design in the first week, students made a video clip explaining an epidemiologic study design to a fellow student. Students are bored from sitting behind the screen, so we suggested creative ways to present such as drawing or using a door(way)as a whiteboard. We saw that they really got creative and dug much deeper into the study design theory than usually on campus!

Figure 2: Students gave each other feedback on the peer instruction video's using the FeedbackFruits video assignment.

Figure 3: We highlighted the best peer instruction video's and recommended students to study these for the exam.

Figure 3: We highlighted the best peer instruction video's and recommended students to study these for the exam.

Another way we challenged students was to let them think about confounders and effect modifiers, which are easy to understand conceptually but really difficult to identify in practice. To challenge students, we let several PhD students present their study design in a video clip and asked the students to help identify confounders and effect modifiers. We let students share and respond to each other on the Brightspace forum. This became a very lively a-synchronous discussion.

Instead of giving individual feedback to the assignments, we identified six or seven common misconceptions and posted these in the Brightspace forum for all students to see. We followed up with a live Q&A session during which students asked a lot of questions and we had very lively discussions.

We didn’t give answers, we did not lecture at all. We asked students to come up with answers together, and this helped us get a clear idea of the gaps in student understanding.

In this way, each week in the first half of the course was structured well. Students appreciated that they had one thing to focus on and a clear closure every week.

3. Group work (weeks 4 to 6)

The second half of the course focussed on applying the acquired knowledge. . For this we used a very different design. Students were ready to do something freer: to design their own epidemiological study. In three weeks, they wrote a grant proposal for their study design in traditional groupwork. Online, everything is more blurred in their heads, so this is why we decided to present every assignment after each other with a clearly scheduled start and stop. This is the reason we did the group work after they finished the individual assignments, to make sure they did not run parallel.

We made students partly responsible for the course. One student group hosted a Q&A session each, introducing the lecturer, managing time, moderating the chat, and stimulating other students to turn their camera on. At first, the students were nervous about hosting a Q&A session. After we stressed it is not a problem if things go wrong (it happens to lecturers too), the students became more relaxed after the first Q&A session. The shared responsibility really helped to get most students engaged.

Figure 4: Giving students responsibility for their learning: four students introduce the two lecturers and facilitate the chat in Virtual Classroom. ​​​​

Figure 4: Giving students responsibility for their learning: four students introduce the two lecturers and facilitate the chat in Virtual Classroom. 

4. Teacher feedback

The fun in a face-to-face lecture of seeing students understand something is missing when lecturing online. That is why we decided to skip the whole lecturing part. The Q&A sessions were much more fun for the lecturers: the students were much more active, it showed if they understood something and they asked follow-up questions. In this way, the same amount of fun was experienced compared to lecturing on-campus. It did take more time than normal, you had to get to know the students and we all had to get used to the new format. After the second Q&A, we could feel we were interacting as humans just like in an on-campus setting.

The assignments provide lecturers with the eyes they need. The first assignment really helped because students made creative video’s. Video’s, forum discussions in Brightspace, etc. provide the online alternative for seeing students on campus and seeing what they did or did not understand.

It took a lot of thinking to decide how to assess students in this course. The whole purpose of the course is learning the students to think. You want to allow them to make mistakes so we could give feedback. However, if assignments don’t count toward the course grade, students are reluctant to do them. Taking this into account it was decided that half the course grade is based on the effort students put into doing the assignments and giving feedback to peers, It did not matter whether they provided the correct answers. The other half of the course grade is based on the exam. Students have to pass the exam to make sure they understand the theory.

Conclusions

Next year the course will be taught in the same way, this new overall course design will stay the same: no lectures but assignments and Q&A sessions. Preferably, the synchronous sessions such as group work and Q&A sessions can take place on campus and not in the virtual classroom.

Lessons learned / Tips

Mentions tips lecturer has for colleagues based on their experience.

  1. Drop things! We dropped guest lectures, replacing them with knowledge clips or quick and dirty cuttings from last years’ web lectures. The crucial thing is to develop a few (only 3) really good exercises that cover the learning objectives. In this case, to think like an epidemiologist.
  2. The assignments should match the learning outcomes. You can’t go halfway. This design only works when you have very good assignments. Be strict in your delivery: don’t start explaining and lecturing about study designs! In this way, the assignment won’t challenge students. If I had explained the theory after the peer instruction assignment, I send the message that their explanation wasn’t good enough. And they would be hesitant to contribute to the next assignment, preferring to wait for me to start lecturing again.
  3. Communicate when students' work is good enough. To my surprise, some students felt quite overwhelmed with the assignments even after I had explained they were not judged on being correct and set clear time limits.  It turned out that a few students got super-enthusiastic, posting much more on the forums than needed. ‘Normal’ students felt stressed that they were doing less. So I should tell them they are also doing a good job, even if they’re doing less than the super enthusiastic students.
  4. Give students responsibility. Letting them host the Q&A’s really contributed to socialization: they saw themselves as part of a group. In the chat, they could see that others are struggling with the same questions. Students can show more sensitivity to the needs of other students.  As a teacher, you make the course together with the students.  Allow things to go wrong, and then have the courage to let students help you as a teacher, e.g by summarizing the Q&A discussed so far, or by expressing what they need from you. Students can then feel part of the course.

Contacts

Teacher(s): Cora Busstra
Educational supporters/ESC contact (on MS Teams): -
Author (interviewer): Serge Stalpers 

Attachments

  • Presentation of a simplifying blended course – a design: (video below)

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