Editor’s Note: Whether developed from a theoretical base or an empirical base, research is necessary to test the viability of teaching strategies individually and in combination. This study relates graduate student’s perception of effectiveness of teaching/learning strategies based on three contrasting theories, number of teaching/learning strategies used, and instructor’s choice of theory and strategies. Level of instructor experience and support systems for instructors and students are taken into account.
Creating and Testing Teaching/Learning Strategies for the Virtual Classroom
Nancy E. Thompson
The Effective Distance Education Model, adult educational theory, and brain-based educational theory were used in the creation of teaching/learning strategies for use in the virtual classroom. The strategies were tested in three courses, taught by instructors with varying levels of experience with distance education. The strategies were successfully used and viewed as effective by the students. However, the instructors’ levels of experience impacted both the number of strategies used and the perceived effectiveness of those strategies. The implications on the training and support of novice distance education instructors are drawn.
Historically, education meant bringing students to the sources of knowledge. The paradigm is shifting. Modern educational institutions are bringing sources of knowledge to the students (Bailey, 1999). Ten million students are taking distance education degree courses in the world, including one-third of the two- and four-year post secondary education institutions in the United States. In 1997-1998, 54,470 different courses were offered through distance education (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1999). Distance education is defined as “education or training courses delivered to remote (off-campus) location(s) via audio, video (live or prerecorded), or computer technologies, including both synchronous and asynchronous instruction” (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).
Nationally, courses offered via distance education compare favorably with courses offered through more traditional means of delivery. Since 1992, when systematic study of distance education started, research shows no statistically significant difference in student learning between classroom and distance instruction (Saba, 2000).
Utah State University began electronic delivery of courses in 1983 and currently has an enrollment of approximately 3,000 students per semester. In 2000, a survey of students who had participated in distance education classes at Utah State University indicated that there is a significant correlation (p<.01) between the students’ perceived quality of the course taken through distance education and the following factors related to the instructor: course materials selected by the instructor, interactions with the instructor, perceived knowledge of the instructor, teaching methods used by the instructor, and accessibility of the instructor. There was also a significant correlation between the students’ perceived quality of the course and the academic skill development of the students, defined as writing, presentation, critical thinking, teaching, curriculum development, networking, and research (Thompson, 2001).
A theoretical model was developed from the results of the Thompson study (Thompson, 2002). It was the purpose of this study first to create and describe teaching/learning strategies that are consistent with the Effective Distance Education model, adult education theory, and brain-based educational theory. Second, the strategies were tested in three courses taught via distance education. The courses represented varying level of instructor experience in distance education. The third purpose was to determine if the level of instructor experience influenced the use and effectiveness of the strategies. Student evaluations of the strategies were used to assess the impact of the distance education model and the effectiveness of the teaching/learning strategies.
Given the increasing number of courses being offered through distance education and the need for instructors to teach those courses, it is important to provide the support for those instructors as they strive to teach in a new medium. The teaching/learning strategies developed for the project could provide those instructors with the necessary tools for effective instruction.
Review Of Literature
The following review of the literature for this study includes a presentation of the three theories that guided the selection and creation of the teaching/learning strategies created for this project. First, a description of distance education students and the related adult education theory is presented. Second, the Effective Distance Education Model is discussed. Last, brain-based education theory will be reviewed as it relates to the development of teaching/learning strategies.
Distance Education and Adult Education Theory
Distance education students are described as non-traditional, focused, highly motivated, and independent learners, returning to school through the use of technology (Roberts, 2000). Because most have full-time jobs and families, convenience may be a crucial factor in the lives of many distance students (U.S. Distance Learning Association, 2000). Most students would not have access to graduate education or graduate education within their field without the availability of distance education (Laughlin, 1999). Growing numbers of working adults are eager for post secondary experiences, a factor that is driving the market for distance education (Green, 1999).
The majority of students participating in distance education programs are adults, and as such display unique characteristics and needs. Adults, by definition, are older and have greater responsibilities than traditional college students. While Long (1990) cautions educators to remember that learning is contextual and all learners are unique, there are characteristics, possessed by adults, which differ from younger students. First, adult students are more complex (Brundage, 1993) and have more sophisticated insights (Niemi, et.al., 1998). Adult students bring to the classroom knowledge from their career, skills developed at home and at work, and the experiences of a wide variety of relationships. They are more likely to see how ideas can become actions and theory can become practice.
Second, adult learners have more clear-cut goals (Brundage, 1993). They are more likely to know what career applications and advancements are related to their studies. They have a clear picture of skills they want to develop. They can prioritize time and resources in order to meet those goals.
Third, the adult learner wants to take an active part in the learning process and, therefore, has different expectations of the instructor (Brundage, 1993; Niemi, et.al., 1998). Each will have unique experiences and goals and wants the instructor to adapt the course expectations, strategies, and assignments to reflect their personal experiences and help achieve their academic, personal, and career goals. It is important to remember that, while young students are primarily in one developmental stage of life, adult students may range from 20 to 80 years of age and may represent many different developmental stages. That life stage will impact the adult student’s expectations for the course and the instructor.
The Effective Distance Education Model
Thompson (2001) surveyed students who had enrolled in Utah State University, Family and Consumer Sciences Education graduate courses taught through distance education from 1996 through 2000. The purpose of the survey was to assess the effectiveness of the distance education program. As a result of that study, an Effective Distance Education (EDE) Model was developed. The model is presented in Figure 1.
Previous studies have focused on the technology used to present distance education courses and logistics of course management (time, locations, duration) in the assessment of distance education courses (Mancuso, 2001; Green, 1999). In contrast, findings of the Thompson study indicated that the role of the instructor was key to the success of the distance education program. To be effective, distance education instructors need to carefully select course materials to meet the students’ needs, be accessible to students both during class time and outside of class, be knowledgeable about the subject matter and share that expertise, and use a variety of teaching strategies which meet the students’ leaning styles and needs. In addition, course curriculum and teaching/learning strategies need to help the students develop skills in writing, presentation, critical thinking, networking, and research. The EDE Model was developed following the analysis of data from one distance education program. The effectiveness of that model as a guide to distance education curriculum development needs to be tested, both at Utah State University and at other universities who offer distance education as an option to course work completion.
Brain-Based Educational Theory
Educators once thought of learning in terms of Pavolov’s classical conditioning, Skinner’s operant conditioning, and applied behavior analysis (Woolfolk, 1995). However, as scientists learn more about the composition and function of the brain, educators are redefining learning. Sylwester (1995), in examining brain function, describes learning in terms of the physical changes that occur in neural networks, the functional organization of memory systems within the brain, and the procedures used by humans to maintain important memories. Learning physically changes the brain because new stimulations, experiences, and behaviors cause the brain to rewire itself or create new neural connections (Jensen, 1998). Caine and Caine (1991) present the idea that “the brain learns because that is its job” (p.3). Further, the brain has four features that promote learning: the ability to detect patterns and to make approximation; a capacity for various type of memory; the ability to self-correct and learn from experience; and a capacity to create. Wolfe (2001) defines learning as “a process of building neural networks” (p.135).
As researchers discover how the brain works as it learns, practical strategies have emerged which apply that information to the classroom setting. Wolfe (2001) suggests meaningful curriculum comes through problems, projects, and simulations that create learning experiences at three levels: concrete, symbolic, and abstract. Increased visual and auditory stimulation for organization are also suggested. Examples of visual organizers are mind maps, T-charts, outlines, story-plot diagrams, and advanced organizers. Auditory stimulation may come from the use of music, rhyme, and rhythm.
Teaching/learning strategies are also suggested by Jensen (1998). Student motivation and attention are critical for learning. The three critical factors that influence student attention for learning are choices, relevance, and engagement. Woolfolk (1995) presents similar factors for student motivation, but categorizes them as intrinsic source of motivation, meaningful learning goal, and task involvement. Strategies that encourage students to learn fulfill basic requirements, build confidence, show the value of learning, and help students stay focused on the task. It is also suggested that strategy designed for student motivation should be assessed in the following areas: task structure, autonomy/responsibility, recognition, grouping, evaluation, time, and teacher expectations.
In addition, Caine and Caine (1991), Sylwester (1995), Jensen (1998), and Wolfe (2001) recommend that teachers plan teaching/learning strategies which provide for a variety of experiences, present an emotionally supportive environment, promote creativity, and respect the strong link between movement, the arts, and learning. The value of these recommendations remains constant regardless of the age of the learner.
Current research shows there are students who benefit from the availability of distance education. Assessment of distance education courses indicates equivalency to traditional education. Brain-based educational theory presents an understanding of how students learn and suggests teaching/learning strategies that are compatible with that theory. However, strategies for traditional educational settings need to be adapted for presentation via distance education. It is suggested that teaching/learning strategies used for distance education be compatible with both brain-based education theory and the EDE Model previously described.
It was the purpose of this study to create and describe teaching/learning strategies for use in distance education, use those strategies in designing distance education instruction, and test their effectiveness. The study was comprised of two phases. In phase one, teaching/learning strategies which are consistent with adult educational theory, brain-based educational theory and the Effective Distance Education (EDE) Model were developed and described in detail. In phase two, the model and teaching/learning strategies were tested. Three courses were taught using the EDEM strategies that enhance the role of the instructor and promote skill development in the areas of writing, presentation, critical thinking, networking, and research. At the end of the semester, the strategies were evaluated by the instructors and the courses will be evaluated by the students. These assessments were used to determine the effectiveness of the EDEM in planning and presenting distance education courses.
Three hypotheses were tested.
The subjects for the study were graduate students enrolled in three distance education courses at Utah State University. The courses were selected prior to the beginning of the semester to reflect three levels of instructor experience. Unfortunately, the student enrollment was unusually small for those courses and did not reflect the average enrollment of 20 students per course. As a result, there were only 42 enrolled students in the three courses. In order to protect the student subjects, permission from the Internal Review Board at Utah State University was obtained.
The study was comprised of two phases. In phase one, the teaching/learning strategies were developed. In phase two, the effectiveness of the Effective Distance Education Model (EDE Model) and the teaching/learning strategies were tested.
In phase one, the teaching/learning strategies, compatible with the EDE Model were developed and described in detail. Strategies included motivational, presentation, musical, assessment, community-building, and management approaches All strategies were assessed using a rubric designed to help align the strategies with EDE Model, adult education theory, and brain-based education theory. Specifically, the strategies were assessed using the following criteria: meaningfulness of projects; visual and auditory organizational stimulation; choices provided to the student; relevance to the student; engagement; teaching of basic skills; building of student confidence; teaching of the value of learning; assistance in focusing students; provision for a variety of experiences; presentation of an emotionally supportive environment; promotion of creativity; and respect for the strong link between movement, the arts, and learning. Following the evaluation of the strategies, each strategy was described on an individual card and given to the three distance education instructors selected for participation in the study.
In phase two, the teaching/learning strategies were tested. Three distance education courses being taught in the fall semester, 2002 were selected. The courses represented different levels of teaching experience by the instructors: one taught by an experience instructor, with eight years experience (18 previous courses); one taught by an instructor with three years experience (8 previous courses); and a third course taught by a novice instructor with no distance education experience. The teaching/learning strategies developed in phase one were used in the instruction of all of these courses. The instructors were asked to make brief reflective notes following each class session in order to help them assess the strategies.
Data Collection and Analysis
At the end of the semester, the students were asked to complete the university-required course evaluation and an evaluation prepared by the researcher. That evaluation asked students to respond to the effectiveness of each EDE Model teaching/learning strategy used by the instructor. Using a four-point, Likert-type scale, students rated each teaching/learning strategy by responding to five prompts: “I remember when this technique was used in class;” This technique was effective;” “I enjoyed the use of this technique;” “As a teacher, I would use this technique;” and “This technique aided in student learning. Descriptive statistics on student evaluations were compiled. In addition, differences in student evaluations from the courses were analyzed.
Descriptive statistics were computed and reported. An effectiveness score for each teaching/learning strategy was determined by computing the mean score for all five prompts given on the Likert-type scale. Correlations between the effectiveness scores and the course instructor’s experience were determined.
It was the purpose of this study to define and describe teaching/learning strategies for use in distance education, use those strategies in designing distance education instruction, and test their effectiveness. Three theoretical frames were used in the creation of the strategies: adult educational theory; brain-based educational theory; and the Effective Distance Education Model. The subjects were 42 master’s students enrolled in three distance education courses. The three courses represented three levels of teaching experience: one course was taught by a novice instructor, teaching for the first time via distance education; the second course was taught by an instructor with moderate experience, having taught eight distance education courses over a period of three years; the third course was taught by an experienced instructor; having taught 18 courses over an eight year period.
Hypothesis 1 (teaching/learning strategies developed using brain-based educational theory, adult education theory, and the Effective Distance Education model would be perceived as effective by the students) was supported. The students assessed the effectiveness of the teaching/ learning strategies by responding to a 4.0 Likert-type scale. The experienced instructor used 40 strategies and had a mean effectiveness score of 3.70. The less experienced instructor used 27 strategies with a mean effectiveness score of 3.58. The novice teacher used 6 strategies with a mean effectiveness score of 3.03. When combining the scores for all three courses, a total of 73 strategies were used. The mean score was 3.60, with a range of 2.40 - 4.00 and a standard deviation of .34474.
Three teaching/learning strategies were used by all three instructors. In the first strategy, “Virtual office hours” were kept by all three. The syllabus for each course contained information about the times when the instructors would be in their offices and on-line so that the students could contact them by e-mail or telephone. This information was repeated to the students during class time. The effectiveness scores for this activity ranged from 2.40 to 3.73, with a mean value of 3.21.
Another strategy used by all three instructors was the use of visual aids that were easily seen and read. This is critically important because the easy viewing of the visual aids helps the distance education student feel included in the learning community. The strategy was successfully used by all three instructors with a mean effectiveness score of 3.86.
All three instructors also successfully used “Power Point” presentations in their courses. The lecture outline, charts, and other visuals were developed on and presented via a personal computer. The mean effectiveness score for this strategy was 3.34.
Hypothesis 2 (there would be no differences among the three test courses with relationship to the number of teaching/learning strategies used by the instructors) was rejected. The experienced instructor used 40 of the 46 teaching/learning strategies developed for distance education. The less experienced instructor used 27, the novice instructor used only six teaching strategies. There was a very high correlation (r = .986) between the experience of the teacher and the number of strategies used in the presentation of the distance education course.
Hypothesis 3 (there would be no differences among the three test courses with relationship to the perceived effectiveness of the teaching/learning strategies used by the instructors) was also rejected. There was a significant (p<.05) difference between the effectiveness scores for the teaching/learning strategies used by the experienced instructor and those used by the moderately experienced instructor. The experienced instructor’s teaching/learning strategies had a mean score of 3.70, on a 4.00 scale. The moderately-experienced instructor’s strategies had a mean score of 3.58. Because of the low number of strategies (N=6) used by the novice instructor, statistically significant differences were not determined when comparing that number to those of the other two instructors.
Reviewing finding of the study allows certain conclusions to be drawn. First, teaching/learning strategies developed within a theoretical frame of adult education, brain-based education and the Effective Distance Education Model can be effective when used in the virtual, graduate classroom. While it appears the strategies themselves can be effective, the experience of the distance education instructor appears to impact both the number of strategies incorporated into the course and the effectiveness of those strategies as perceived by the students. As instructors gain experience in distance education, they become more familiar with both the content of their courses and the technology used in the transmission of that content. This familiarity with content and delivery permits the instructor to become more relaxed and try new approaches to instruction. The novice instructor, with no previous experience teaching via distance education, focused on learning the intricacies of the technology and the content of the course that was being taught. This lack of experience, discomfort with technology and course content, and resulting lack of confidence appears to also impact the students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the instructors’ teaching/learning strategies.
Looking at these conclusions, it is evident that effective teaching/learning strategies for distance education can be developed and successfully used. However, the inexperienced instructor needs additional help in implementing those strategies. Faced with a new, and often frightening task, the novice distance education instructor may need some of the same assistance used in successful teacher induction programs across the country. Wong (2001) describes the three components of a successful induction program as training, support, and retention. Weiss and Weiss (1999), while acknowledging a wide range of induction programs and philosophies, argue that the most successful programs are the ones that include sustained feedback in a collaborative environment. Others suggest that new teachers need supervision, coaching, demonstrations, and assessment (ERIC, 1986).
Given the information on successful induction programs, three suggestions are made for distance education teacher induction. First, the new instructor needs training. While many universities provide a training session that introduces the technology of distance education, few present training sessions designed to acquaint the teacher with distance education teaching strategies. Collecting effective teaching/learning strategies designed for distance education and presenting those strategies to the novice instructors would enhance their knowledge of the teaching process and add to their repertoire of teaching strategies available to them in the classroom. Providing time and facilities for practice could also be very helpful.
Another successful technique used in the induction of new teachers is the use of a master teacher as a mentor. Pairing the new teacher with an experienced teacher can provide the new teacher with a role model, friend, advisor, and confidante. The same would be true in the distance education setting. The new teacher would be able to observe classes, learn new teaching/learning strategies, seek advice, and share ideas.
The third guideline is the encouragement of reflection. Brookfield (1995) describes the role of reflection in the development of teaching skills as teachers learn to know themselves and view themselves through the eyes of their students, their colleagues, and the professional literature. Three suggestions can be made to encourage the process of reflection. The first is to video tape the instructor and make the tape available to the teacher for review. The process of reflection on the teaching skills demonstrated on the video tape can be encouraged by the teacher’s mentor. This is useful in helping the teachers know themselves and see themselves through the eyes of the students. Second, teachers should be encouraged to have students complete periodic assessments of the course and the teaching strategies being employed. Third, reflection can be encouraged and used as an instrument for professional growth by participation in informal professional-development groups. This group would meet on a regular basis to share experiences, both successes and failures, share ideas for growth, and encourage each other. The group would not necessarily need to meet face-to-face. An internet chat room or bulletin board could be created for a “virtual” support group. Both novice and experienced distance education instructors could participate. Discussion could be spontaneous, or one of the teachers could take a leadership roll, posting questions and “leading” the discussion.
Following Brookfield’s (1995) suggestion for reflection, learning to see oneself through the lens of the professional literature, it would be important to provide distance education instructors with access to resources developed to improve and support distance education instructions. These resources would include current professional journals, texts, and research reports. In addition, a video library of a variety of instructors and teaching/learning strategies would be very useful to the novice teacher.
The distance education instructor, like instructors in all other classrooms, needs support and encouragement as new skills are developed and tested. Training sessions, mentors, and the means of reflection need to be provided so as to help the new teachers develop their maximum potential. Successful teaching/learning strategies may be designed for distance education, but without training and support, teachers may not have the confidence, skill, or time to successfully implement them.
This study has limitations that need to be addressed. The teaching/learning strategies were tested with a limited number of courses and students and in only one distance education program. It is not possible to generalize the findings to other programs. However, the results suggest that further testing would be helpful. Creating and testing a distance education teacher induction program could also be informative.
Demographic information about the students and instructors who participated in this study was not collected. Therefore, it is difficult to know the impact of individual characteristics on the findings. It is suggested that subsequent studies collect that demographic information.
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About the Author:
Nancy E. Thompson, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Utah State University. As a teacher educator, she teaches methods courses, supervises student teachers, creates and evaluates teaching/learning materials. Her current research interests include the strengthening of distance education through the training and support of novice distance educators. Contact Dr. Thompson at 2920 Old Main Hill, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322-2920, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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