July 28, 2009, by Teaching at Nottingham

Assessing the learning impact of electronic revision aids

Derek Irvine, Deborah Kays, Darren Walsh:

Background: “Traditionally, weekly small group tutorial/example classes are used within the School of Chemistry / Faculty of Engineering (Chemical Engineering) to enhance student understanding of material delivered during lectures. By relating exam performance to tutorial attendance, both departments recognize that these sessions are highly beneficial to students’ learning. The tutorial format allows them to ask questions and address more complex issues that may not be covered during lectures due to time constraints or unwillingness to ask questions in large groups. There is, however, a level of concern regarding poor student engagement with these tutorials, and the concomitant low impact of this small group teaching. This view is based on a perceived reduction in undergraduate attendance levels at these timetabled sessions along with an associated drop in answer sheet submission prior to meetings. In other areas of the course (e.g. laboratory classes) an 80% attendance and submission rate is the definition of adequate engagement and is a requirement for student progression. Therefore, this has also been suggested as the benchmark for successful tutorial attendance. Meanwhile, students/student bodies are actively requesting increased levels of feedback on all aspects of their on-going performance, which is an intended outcome of the weekly tutorials. This study is designed to investigate whether it is possible to rebuild students’ appreciation of tutorials by providing an e-learning format, supplemented by focused small group sessions with the tutors. Such an electronic tutorial system will also provide immediate feedback to the student on their performance.

Method: “An e-tutorial system was set up in consultation with colleagues with the relevant methodological expertise in the design of e-learning environments for their Schools. The design of the questions was considered to maximize pedagogical effectiveness; in order to probe the students understanding of core basic principles, and their ability to extend these to new situations and question types. The e-tutorial was open to the entire second year Inorganic NMR Spectroscopy cohort via WebCT. Through this medium, feedback was immediate, and incorrect answers explained online. Timetabled drop-in sessions were included so that the students could use the electronically marked answers as the basis to arrange focused one-on-one sessions with a tutor to discuss their results and address any problems. The impact of the e-tutorial on student learning was assessed by (a) numerical analysis of the uptake, (b) performance of students during the e-tutorial, (c) the analysis of a questionnaire containing both numerical answers and free-hand comment sections, designed to gather information regarding the students’ opinion of the e-tutorial (including the format and the general concept) and (d) verbal feedback given during to drop in sessions.

Results: “Although there was a relatively low uptake of the e-tutorial, 20% of the class successfully engaged with the e-tutorial. Of these, 90% found the e-tutorial a very positive experience and would like to see e-tutorials introduced for other modules. The quality of student experience was derived from the analysis methods detailed above. The key data that could be interrogated statistically, the questionnaire’s numerical answers, showed that 90% returned answers with the appropriate agree / disagree response or better. Successful engagement was defined as achieving either greater than 30% of the available marks or having spent greater than 30 minutes attempting the questions. Of the students who logged onto the site, only 3 were found to have not successfully engaged by this criterion. The e-tutorial was also defined to be successful by the fact that it did also inspire undergraduates to organise tailored small group sessions with the tutor, which were focused on their individual needs. However, this activity is very much seen, by the students who attended, as an addition to and not a replacement for the provision of standard, timetabled small group teaching sessions.

Conclusions: “Therefore, this work promotes a shift in the balance of small group sessions within both the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. This study suggests that a smaller number of formal timetabled tutorials should be offered, which are supplemented by e-tutorials combined with drop in slots available in staff diaries. This is because it was found that a combination of e-tutorials plus drop-in sessions was considered most valuable by the students. Therefore this is the format that this group recommends for implementation.

Review of Methodology: “Student up-take of the e-tutorial may have been much higher had they been more aware that focused small group/individual follow-up sessions were available. In this study, communication with the students focused heavily on the existence of e-tutorial, whilst the potential to arrange follow up tutor meetings was perhaps not as clearly stressed. For next year cohort the availability of small group follow-up sessions will be emphasized more clearly.”

Paper presented at the University’s Fifteenth Learning & Teaching conference (September, 2009).

Prof Derek Irvine
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Dr Deborah Kays
Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry
School of Chemistry

Dr Darren Walsh
Lecturer in Physical Chemistry
School of Chemistry

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