5 Essential Tips for Using Physical Space & Assessments in Your Online...

5 Essential Tips for Using Physical Space & Assessments in Your Online Course

By Kunal Chawla     Jul 12, 2015

5 Essential Tips for Using Physical Space & Assessments in Your Online Course

Learning in an online environment can sometimes be restricted by a small screen that does not fully leverage a student’s physical space.

In this final installment of my four-part blog series, I discuss ways in which we can incorporate the learner’s hands, physical environment and experiences into the learning process. Additionally, I share some assessment strategies I used while making online courses about Python Programming and iPhone App Development at Udacity.

You might want to take a look at my first three posts, in which I share 15 strategies on how to plan, teach and build community in an online course.

16) Situate The Learner

The online courses I have designed require upwards of 20 hours of investment from the student. This means that it can take the learner several days or even weeks to finish the course. It is important, therefore, to give students a map of their current location in the course, an idea of the progress they have made, and the journey ahead.

In one of my courses, I used stairs as a metaphor for progress to help students answer the question, “Where am I in the class?” With every new lesson, I moved up the stairs to provide a new “you are here location” to the student.

This course map is akin to having a table of contents in a book; it helps the learner place her own progress.

17) Explore The Next Episode

Online courses often comprise several lessons or modules. A great way to end each lesson is to ask students to reflect on the new ideas they have learned.

Another interesting technique to use at the end of a lesson is to provide a teaser for the upcoming content. This may motivate students to continue learning or schedule time to come back.

18) Use Hand Gestures & Space

What psychologists call embedded cognition teaches us that a student's ability to learn and remember new things is influenced by his experiences in the physical world. For example, research demonstrates that people tend to remember more of a story when they use improvisation to act it out physically, compared to simply reading or discussing the tale with others.

Incorporating the learner’s hands, surrounding space and multiple sensory capacities into the learning process can be particularly tricky in an online environment where the student is located on the other end of the fiber-optic line, trying to learn by watching a video or reading some text.

Prof. David Malan from Harvard University implemented this strategy incredibly well while teaching his students to sort a sequence of numbers in his programming class. He invited eight students on the stage, gave each of them a number, and then asked them to swap positions with each other as determined by a sorting algorithm. I tried to leverage space in a similar way when explaining how computer programs work in an online course.

When creating videos for your course, I recommend that you push the bounds of the video frame and interact with the physical space around you. In my experience, when students can relate to their instructors' physical movements, they can better internalize the content.

19) Transform Students into Teachers

“If you truly want to learn something, teach it to someone else.” This was my computer science professor’s final advice to graduating students. The significance of this statement became clear to me only when I first started working as a middle school science teacher; the gaps in my knowledge were illuminated as I explored subjects with my students.

To help my online learners understand the gaps in their knowledge, I invited them to become teachers. At the end of a project, I asked my students to teach what they had learned to a friend; I also requested that they take pictures or videos of the event and share those stories on the discussion forum.

This exercise led to thousands of posts and ten times as many views. Some of the most heartwarming stories included one from Maria, a student in Montreal, who discussed her program with her boyfriend, and a post from Qamardeen, who decided to teach his wife how to code.

While these stories were very satisfying for me as an instructor, they were also a great learning tool for my students. Educational researchers have demonstrated that students who know they have to teach a subject to someone else end up learning more than those who are learning about a subject only for themselves. This phenomenon is aptly labeled the “protege effect.”

My recommendation is that you encourage students in your online course to teach the ideas they have learned to someone they know.

20) Write Blogs and One-Minute Papers

Researchers from Purdue University have found that students who recall and write new ideas after reading a body of text tend to remember and understand the ideas significantly better than those who simply re-read the same text several times.

One way in which expert instructors use writing as a tool to promote learning is with a technique called One-Minute Paper, which educators call retrieval practice. Here’s how it works: towards the end of the class, the teacher asks her students to write down answers to the following two questions:

  • What main ideas have you learned in class today?
  • What questions do you have after today’s lesson?

To do this in your online class, you can ask students to summarize main ideas and to identify any unanswered questions at the end of every lesson. This exercise helps your learners assess what they know, and provides you with data on common student questions that you can use to improve your course.

I tried a version of this technique by asking my students to write blogs. Three-quarters of the way through an online course on making an iPhone app, I invited my students to blog about the new ideas they discovered in the course. To incentivize students to finish this exercise, I highlighted some of the best blogs on the course website.

We now come to the end of this four-part blog series, during which I have tried to contribute to the conversation about how to teach more effectively in an online space. Have you come across other strategies that can help create effective online learning experiences? I welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Kunal is a course developer and instructor at Udacity.

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