One of my colleagues, Greg Marczak, was kind enough to guest-author this blog post about the adaptive-release techniques he is using to teach online Chemistry this semester. Chemistry online issues are very similar to math online issues – concepts build on each other and the equations and diagrams make communication online very difficult. Greg has years of experience teaching online, and devotes tons of time to making his courses a high-quality learning experience. Welcome to the blog, Greg!
As a chemistry instructor at a community college in Michigan, I have tried many teaching styles and techniques over the last 8 years. I have listened to the “experts” who claim that I have to teach differently and engage the students. I have watched the media criticize the teaching profession for being outdated and irrelevant in today’s business world. Having grown somewhat tired of being attacked, I have exponentially increased the preparation of my class to put more ownership for learning on the student.

A short little tirade before I get into what I am trying… (perhaps some of you will feel my pain.) No matter what learning style, technology, or hands on activity I have tried, I have found that the many of students do not want to engage. Many have been content to sit in class, fail exams, not do homework or activities, and then are very surprised when they do not pass my class at the end of the semester. This piece discusses the way in which I am trying to make a foolproof system where the only choice is for students to succeed.

In the summer of 2007, I decided that I would migrate my classes to a self-paced style of learning. Fortunately for me, I love the new and exciting technology changes thrust upon us on a daily basis and find that this is a perfect way to foolproof a course. I have attempted to do this using the adaptive release feature found in Blackboard Course Management System.

For my online courses, students are not allowed to proceed until they have mastered a concept. For example, all concepts are broken down into small individual learning units. These learning units typically contain a learning objective, a reading assignment, an online lecture, and an assessment (see figure below).

Each learning unit should only take 30-60 minutes to complete, depending on the ability of the student. Now while the concept of the learning unit is not new in my courses, the use of the Adaptive Release feature has changed the way students progress through my class. For those of you who haven’t used or seen the adaptive release feature, it allows you to specify criteria which students must meet in order for new material to appear. In my online courses, students can not open up the next learning unit they achieve 80-90% mastery of the material in their current learning unit.

I know this idea isn’t new to many educators, but it does appear to be very new to most of my students. In previous courses, where adaptive release wasn’t available, I found that many of students would merely go through the motions of learning. That is, when they came across a difficult concept, they would skip over it. Unfortunately, this caught up to them later, and they usually found themselves so overwhelmed or behind, that they would drop the class.

To make this work, I have told my students that they may proceed at their own pace. This means that if they can’t complete the course by the end of the semester, they will be given an incomplete and allowed to proceed until they finish. However, they must show progress. This is another beautiful aspect of adaptive release. I often put in one question assessments which are nothing more than a statement which asks for a password. Let’s call this a “Stoplight” for now. When students finish a certain number of learning objectives, the adaptive release feature allows the stoplight to appear. Students then have to email me asking for the password (i.e. permission to proceed). Keep in mind, that for this stoplight to even appear in the first place, they will have received 80% mastery on all learning objectives so far. I can track their progress by their requests for the password.

So why don’t I just look in the gradebook and see where they are at in the course? Because when I am the one monitoring their progress, the instructor process is time consuming. The instructor process is not relevant in a self-paced courses. The instructor process does not force students to communicate with the instructor on a regular basis. By forcing the students to correspond by asking for a password (via email), I immediately know where they are at, I can ask or answer questions on a regular basis, and most importantly, it puts the responsibility for doing the work on the student.

If the students don’t do the work, they fail. If the student does do the work, they succeed. Adaptive release and passwords force the student to take responsibility for their own learning. When they take the final exam at the end of the year, they can not blame me for not giving them the material. If they have mastered 80% of the material, they will have seen everything that is going to be on the final. If they do not complete the assigned work, they will fail. If they do complete the assigned work, they will not fail. In using these features, I have tried to remove as many of the gray areas as possible in learning.

So what have I seen so far? Students are moving at a slower pace then they would in a course which runs by due dates. But the questions they are asking and the concepts they are tackling are much more in-depth. I have actually been able to notch up the difficulty on my tests to what I believe is true “A” material. Students can try these concepts over and over and until they master them. Do they get frustrated? Absolutely. But the feedback I am getting is that even though they are frustrated, they are understanding the material. One of my students is taking this class for the third time. She has told me that in the past, she kept fooling herself that she was doing well. This time, she reports that she is learning so much more, even though it appears that she it is taking longer.

And guess what? Learning takes time. If you teach a college course, it’s not supposed to be a cake walk. We are teaching students how to critically think for the future. I always tell my students, if it doesn’t hurt a little bit, then you are not learning. But with my support and the support of their peers (a discussion for a later blog) the pain they feel will be nothing compared to the great feeling of success they feel upon leaving my class with an A or a B.

– Greg Marczak, Guest Blogger

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