From Dull To Dynamic: How To Engage Learners In An Online Science Course

How to Engage Learners In An Online Science Course

For most undergraduate students, one or more courses classified under the Natural Science category are required for degree completion. For non-science majors, this can bring on an impending sense of dread and boredom before the course even begins. Especially for many older, returning students, it may have been many years since they have taken a basic biology or chemistry course. How many times as an online science instructor have you heard these comments in your Welcome or IceBreaker forum from students?

  • I am taking this course because it is required for my degree.
  • I am not sure how this course will support my career goals.
  • After looking over the course requirements, I am a little nervous and intimidated!

How can these students be motivated and engaged to succeed? Do we need to do anything special to motivate these students towards a love of science? Many researchers of motivation theory say no- it all has to do with following best practices in teaching (Student Motivations and Attitudes). Whether we attempt to directly change the reasons for motivation in our students or simply rely on effective teaching methods, the need to establish a strong sense of community remains consistent across disciplines.

In one of the largest studies conducted by the Gallup Organization around employee satisfaction (see “First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Manager’s Do Differently”), the authors Buckingham and Coffman aimed to measure those qualities that defined the strongest, most productive workplaces. Employees of these top-performing companies were asked a series of questions around productivity, engagement and satisfaction including:

  • In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

Among those questions answered positively by the employee that were also rated highest with job performance were those involved with work recognition (Did my manager acknowledge my accomplishments?), personal recognition (Did I feel cared about as a person?) and personal connections (Could I call someone my “best friend” on the job?).

Why not translate these aspects of workplace motivation to the classroom?

  1. Help the student to feel cared about as a person.
    Most online courses begin the first week with an introduction forum. This is where we get to know our students and they get to know us as instructors. This is when fear or resistance to a required course can often begin for the student. Sometimes science courses can be intimidating due to the large amounts of technical information that is compressed in as little as 8 weeks or even less. How we as instructors approach our students and what questions we ask of our learners can help guide discussion topics later to support engagement. Karla Gutiérrez states student engagement requires an emotional investment on the part of the learner. One of the best ways to engage a learner is through tapping into prior knowledge they already possess. During this introductory time, get to know your students: What are their hobbies? What is their major? Where do they live? Some students may be hesitant to share too much personal information and that is ok. A fun and creative way to get students to engage is through the use of technology. Ask them to incorporate aspects of science into their introduction (see 21st Century IceBreakers: 13 Ways to Get to Know Your Students with Technology). My primary subject matter is anatomy & physiology. Most everyone has a disease that has affected a family member that sparks an interest in the student to learn more. I might ask them: What is it about the human body that you would like to know more about? I keep a chart with each student’s name and any pertinent information they are willing to share. I then incorporate this into discussion topics later in the course. For my forensics psychology majors, I might present an article or video on serial killers during the nervous system chapter and then ask: What area of the brain is involved in good versus bad decision making? Want to learn more about engagement in e-learning and how to design courses for maximum effect? Below is a free link to the online textbook “Engage the Unengaged: How to Create More Engaging E-Learning Courses” by Karla Gutiérrez.
  2. Recognize all students for their contributions.
    Many of my students are not science majors and indeed have unique backgrounds or talents. A small portion of students each term in my Introductory to Anatomy & Physiology course are Graphic Design majors. Their appreciation for form and function brings a unique perspective to the study of the human body. Each student is given an option to design a powerpoint presentation investigating one body system to meet project requirements. This allows their abilities outside of pure technical research and documentation to come alive. Knowing they have other options that will expand their interests and abilities attracts many students to the idea of engaging in a required course. Do your students need project ideas? Try Science Buddies! This topic selection wizard asks a series of questions and then suggests a variety of science project ideas based on the student’s answers. This site is designed for grade levels K-12, college as well as adults. Topic areas covered range from the life sciences to engineering.
  3. Provide opportunities for networking and social engagement.
    Provide opportunities for your learners to pair with others during assignments and network with other students. During the first week of the course I provide social links to my students such as Linkedin. Specialized groups, specific to the university, allow them opportunities to network with other students online. They are also given a group forum within the course itself to discuss general course issues or just opportunities to connect. Finally, I provide students with a chance to work with another student(s) in group activities. Discussion boards provide a perfect opportunity for students to work in groups of 2 or 3 to research and collaborate. For those users of the Blackboard LMS platform, these tutorials below demonstrate how to set up students in groups: The tutorial "How to create a single group" demonstrates how to create a single group in Blackboard. The tutorial "Creating group sets" demonstrates how to create a group set in Blackboard.

Each learner is unique and will be motivated by different factors within or outside the classroom. By personalizing the online environment for each student, the instructor increases the chance for engagement and motivation for even the most challenging of courses. For more tips on ways to motivate adult learners (applicable to all disciples) see Christopher Pappas’ article 17 Tips to Motivate Adult Learners.

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