|Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
School of Communications and Contemporary Arts
Edith Cowan University
This paper describes a study that explored the promotion of learner engagement among first year students through a technology facilitated inquiry learning approach. Students were given a series of authentic inquiry tasks supported by a raft of learning scaffolds. The technology-facilitated system supported timely feedback and support and administrative efficiencies for the tutors and teacher. This paper describes the web based system and reports aspects of an inquiry exploring the factors seen to influence students' levels of engagement and achievement. Recommendations are drawn from the study for further instantiations of the approach with appropriate revisions and changes.
Often first year students find their initial studies stressful as they are exposed to new ways of learning. Many in their first year of university learning find difficulty with approaches that place high levels of responsibility onto the learner. In large classes, it is often difficult to provide courses that recognise and cater for the diverse needs of the student cohort. Such strategies can work if there is sufficient scaffolding and support but in large classes, it is often difficult to provide sufficient support to address the many needs of these new students (Calder & Hanley, 2004). Contemporary technologies have been shown in many cases to provide the forms of support that students in their first year of university study might need. Technology can provide strong systems for managing learning settings while offering students choices and opportunities to undertake learning suited to their own needs and wishes.
Conventional learning approaches in higher education are often unsuccessful in developing and promoting higher-order learning outcomes (Laurillard, 2002). The problem often lies in the roles assumed by the learners being passive more than active participants in the learning process, receiving rather than seeking information. Jonassen (2000) argues that meaningful learning can only occur in the context of problem-solving and inquiry, activities that require students to become cognitively engaged. Kearsley & Shneiderman (1999) argue that engaged learning occurs in settings which involve active cognitive processes such as creating, problem solving, reasoning, decision making and evaluation.
A number of writers have demonstrated and described the use of problems and inquiry as contexts for engaged learning (Jonassen, 2000). Inquiry-based learning describes the use of a form of problem or task that serves as a catalyst for student engagement and participation (Fogarty, 1997; Kingsland, 1996). Learning comes from the information processing that occurs as students work to explore the problem setting and to seek a solution. The novelty of working with the problem enables students to acquire new knowledge, as well as to further consolidate their existing skillset and understanding (Schiller, Ostwald & Chen, 1994).
Figure 1: The functional elements of the Web-based tool
The online tool was designed with a high degree of flexibility to enable its reuse in different settings, among cohorts of varying sizes and with varying options for problem specifications, marking options and scoring of submissions. The use of a Web interface provided the flexibility to enable the tool to be accessed through conventional courseware management systems (CMS) via a single link to the supporting Web server where the tool was stored.
The problems were designed to provide meaningful contexts for the application of the knowledge underpinning the course and to deliver a range of open and different solutions to discourage students from copying or colluding. Two hundred and sixty three students completed the course that ran across a 12 week semester.
Figure 2: Tutor page for accessing student submissions in the Web-based tool
When tutors clicked to choose a particular piece of work for a student, the interface enabled the teacher to download the students' work and provided an efficient input screen for providing students with feedback. The system automatically calculated the marks and made any necessary deductions for work submitted late (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Tutor marking screen in the Web-based tool
Students also had a relatively simple interface, a single screen that enabled them to upload their work and to view the feedback from the tutor (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Student page in the Web-based tool
The number of students who attempted more than the required number of problems was not substantial. Whereas it was thought that the inquiry-based approach might create a simulating context that would encourage and motivate students to devote more time to the study of this unit, the results do not suggest that this was a feature of the course. There were 18% of the students who attempted seven or more problems and it is probable that this number would have responded equally to any other form of delivery that sought to promote engagement.
As a further exploration of the capacity of such an environment to motivate and encourage learner participation, the relative workloads of the students studying in this unit were compared to workloads in other units they were studying. Thirty four percent of the students judged the workload to be lighter than in other units. Their responses indicated that there were a number of circumstances and features leading to a reduced load. Interestingly a number commented on the small size of the problems set and the perception that these appeared less important than the larger tasks that formed the assignments in their other units.
There were approximately 30% of the students in the course who responded that they spent more time studying in this unit than they spent in other units in the course. Their responses suggested that the reason for this was not so much a matter of them being motivated to spend more time because of the interest and relevance of the problems, but more so because of other factors such as their lack of IT skills, the number of assessment items and the difficulties they faced solving the problems.
An important element of the study was to explore the ways in which the problem-based setting was able to provide supports for student learning and engagement. To explore this aspect of the learning, students were asked to describe the ways in which they felt the setting helped their learning. A number of patterns emerged in the responses that were given. In particular, supports for learning were perceived to stem from the ways in which the weekly problems scaffolded the learning, supported student-centred activities and promoted knowledge construction.
A number of the students described the way that the weekly tasks provided a supporting structure for their learning processes. There were consistent suggestions among the students describing the value of the problems as a context for the inquiry. Among other things the feedback suggested that the problems encouraged the students to focus on the various topics in ways they might normally not have and the problems encouraged them to explore the topics in depth and beyond the course notes.
Many students commented that the weekly tasks provided strong supports for independent learning and in doing so provided a range of other learning supports. For example, many commented that the process encouraged them to make choices in relation to which problems they would solve and the depth and quality of the response they would make. A number responded positively about being able to explore, research and inquire as a fundamental component of their learning.
In responses to questions about the ways in which the inquiry-based setting assisted their learning, many of the students recognised that the practicality of the problem solving process helped them to derive meaning from the information and content they worked with. Student responses indicated that the problem-solving aided their learning by providing the means to out theory into practice and reinforcing the theoretical elements in practical ways that aided retention and recall as well as understanding
Whilst there were many responses that showed the learning setting in a favourable light, a small number of the students commented that the inquiry-based approach provided some disincentives and discouragements to learning. Students listed among their concerns issues related to the depth of the problems, some found them very hard while others found some of the problems too easy. The question of providing problems with the scope to cater for the diverse needs of the group is an issue that would seem to merit further attention.
The outcomes from the research provide evidence that Web-supported inquiry-based learning environment can support learner engagement but there are factors which can limit student motivation and interest. There appears a need for the problems and contexts to be well articulated and to provide clarity of intent. At the same time the problems need to be relevant and sufficiently detailed to require learners to gather information extra to that supplied to support the problem solving process, but not overly demanding on the scope and extent of the extra information required.
The research has demonstrated the ability of the Web-based setting to provide strong supports and engaging learning activities for the first year students in an efficient and organised fashion. Tutor response indicated that the process provided administrative efficiencies and facilitated a sustainable system despite the large number of assessments to be marked and reviewed. The technology-facilitated system provided many advantages for administering the approach for all stakeholders, the students, tutors and coordinator. From the results obtained, it is possible to conclude that the approach used might provide the forms of encouragement and support needed to support student retention in large classes. This component was not explored directly in this study but would seem a logical question in future studies. Future instantiations of the setting will seek to refine the problem specifications and requirements to address many of the issues raised in the inquiry.
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Note: A more comprehensive and detailed report of this study has been submitted for publication in Higher Education and will be published in 2007.
|Author: Ron Oliver is the Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Education and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. He enjoys teaching and uses technology wherever possible to engage and motivate his students. He has considerable experience in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of technology facilitated learning materials. He has explored and written widely on technology based learning designs, and in particular, authentic learning and task based learning. He was recently awarded a 2006 Carrick Institute Associate Fellowship to continue his work into the use of ICT to support teaching and learning in university settings.
Professor Ron Oliver, School of Communications and Contemporary Arts, Edith Cowan University, 2 Bradford St, Mt Lawley WA 6050, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Oliver, R. (2007). Using technology supported inquiry learning to engage first year students in large classes. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/oliver.html
Copyright 2007 Ron Oliver. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.