Due to the overwhelming interest in my talks at iCERi2019 in Seville (Spain) I decided to share both presentations here. In order for these to be of value I will add descriptions to every slide as a substitute of the oral part of the talk. As I do not script any of my talks I can’t completely resemble what I said in the live situation but the main thoughts will of course be the same. Since each talk was only allowed to be 12 minutes these articles might most likely contain more details than the talks themselves.
My first contribution to iCERi2019 was about Blended Learning in Engineering Mechanics, more precisely in an undergraduate excercise course. So let’s get started.
The general setting is a combination of a lecture, dealing with the theoretical basis, and an excercise course discussing the solution of specific example problems. We are talking about the latter here.
The first question is: What are our objectives? What do we want to achieve in such an excercise course? I guess we all – especially those in education – agree that comprehension is the main aim of all our efforts. In engineering mechanics this means the students need to solve problems actively, i.e., achieve hands-on experience. Something that holds true for every computationaly intensive subject. They should also show a certain self-initiative, e.g., by trying to solve problems they are interested in themselves and thus actively participate in the course. If they are not able to come up with their own solution, they are encouraged to seek collaboration with their colleagues in order to solve the problem together. Moreover, improvement of memorization effects as well as the learning experience in general, by improving the seamlessness of the course, is an important aim.
In the course we are talking about, two parallel approaches are simultaneously used in different groups of the course. Most of the lecturers still use the traditional approach, while my groups are using the modern approach. This allows an easy comparison.
The traditional approach is very teacher-centred in the sense that it is lecture-like. The lecturer pre-selects specific problem sets and typically presents the complete solution to the students on a blackboard or a similar medium. The students just passively consum these sample solutions and copy them from the blackboard. Roughly every two weeks there’s a paper-pencil test checking the ability of the students to solve specific problems. These tests serve as the only means of grading in the traditional approach.
The modern approach on the other hand is very student-centered and workshop-like. It let’s the students choose problems from a pool of problem sets, i.e., they online have to solve about 50% of the available example problems correctly in order to acquire the maximum amount of online-points corresponding to these problems. Moreover, the modern approach requires the students to prepare these example problems leading to a decent amount of hands-on activity. Validity of the solutions is checked by an online assignment that has to be done prior to the face-to-face (f2f), in-class appointment. Furthermore, students have to upload their full solutions as pdf, jpeg, png, etc. files. These full solutions are mandatory in order to obtain the respective online-points in the online-assignment. Moreover, the full solutions are also spot-checked in order to ensure that every student at least uploads her or his own handwritten solutions and doesn’t just use the solutions of a colleague. However, teamwork is actively encouraged in order to strengthen the collaborative skills of the students. There is also a paper-pencil test among other possibilities to achieve online-points resulting in diverse means of grading in contrast to the traditional approach.
As the modern approach is a blended-learning scenario it consists of an online and an in-class or f2f part.
The online part implented in the Learning Management System (LMS) Moodle consists of online assignments in combination with the online tests mentioned earlier, counting towards online points. Because one cannot (by austrian university law) require the students to attend the lecture connected to this excercise course the theoretical basis needed to solve the online assignments is provided in a WIKI. Virtual collaboration and discussions among the students as well as with the lecturer are facilitated in a message board. Contribution to the WIKI, which is also encouraged, as well as active participation in the message board also adds towards the online points. At the end a screencast library of full solutions of all the problem-sets is provided to the students. This library is made public on the authors YouTube channel right now and will subsequently be available to everyone. The screencasts are in German but English subtitels are planned for the (near) future. These screencasts are linked to the LMS to be readily and seamlessly available to the students.
The in-class part is based on the online-part insofar as it is based on problematic areas identified in the online-part. The online assignments have to be handed in prior to the in-class appointments and the lecturer – in this case myself – can then look into the students solutions and identify problems with certain parts of the online assignment. These parts are now specifically discussed during the f2f appointments. Everything is discussed using an interactive whiteboard, in this case Explain Everything, and recorded live. These recordings then go into the screencast library to be available for the students as well as the general public. Roughly every second week there is a paper-pencil test checking if the students really understood the topics discussed earlier. These tests count toward the in-class points. The distribution of points is 20% online and 80% in-class at the moment.
Looking at a specific topic of the course the online part looks like on the left hand side on the slide above. Since we are using Moodle everything is structured in weeks ressembling the structure of the weekly f2f appointments. A specific example problem looks like the one on the right-hand side on the slide above, in this case an example problem from 3D statics. Everything is given in abstract variables, i.e., without numbers. We will see why in a moment.
The WIKI for week 3, corresponding to statics, e.g., equilibrium conditions of mechanical systems, can be seen in the slide above. Figures are often taken out of textbooks, in this case from Russell C. Hibbeler, Technische Mechanik 1. The WIKI in this week explains the equilibrium conditions as well as free-body diagrams and support reactions for 2D as well as 3D supports. Typically enough to get the students going with the specific problem sets.
On this slide we can see a screenshot of the message board. As you can see, the lecturer has to be quite active himself in order to get things going. The more the students realize the board actually helps in finding answers to their questions the better it will work without the teacher interfering.
An online test typically looks like shown here. The main question type used is the so-called variable numeric question, a type that generates random variables for every student to start with. This ensures that no two students receive the same set of variables adding a further barrier to cheating to these online tests. The questions typically concern the specific problem sets of the week in question. However, as all screencasts and thus all full solutions are made public at the moment, online tests are also starting to contain questions not specifically concerning the example problems but also theoretical concepts and further questions.
In-class during the f2f appointments every example problem that is discussed with the whole group of students is recorded as a screencast and goes into the screencast library as explained earlier. At least the complete pool of online problem sets is fully available within the screencast library. However, f2f appointments in the near future, i.e., starting with the next semester, will also discuss further problem sets to deepen the understanding of the students. These are planned to be worked out in small groups by the students themselves with the lecturer being available as a consultant when problems arise.
The complete screencast library is publicly available on the authors YouTube channel as described above and of course all screencasts are also individually linked to the LMS for a seamless learning experience.
After a specific topic has been discussed a further paper-pencil test has to be taken by the students, roughly every second week. All in all there are six of these test to be taken throughout the semester, divided into two parts. Students need to be positive on both parts seperately in order to get a positive grade on the complete course. Should a student struggle to achieve enough points on a part, there is a second chance to achieve enough points by taking an additional exam at the end of each part.
An interesting observation is how the students react to the modern approach as compared to the traditional one. A bit of insight can be gained by comparing the evaluations of the different groups. Here, two groups using the modern approach are compared to the overall evaluation of all groups of the same semester. Evaluations are done in the Austrian grading scheme, where 1 is excellent and 5 is insufficient. The mean values of the modern groups are 1,25 (excellent) and 1,53 (just not excellent) while the overall mean value is 2,10 (good). Taking into account that the two modern groups are also cointained in the overall mean value, one can conclude that students are evaluating the modern approach approximately one grade better than the traditional one.
The same holds true when looking at the free-text evaluations cited in the next slide. Especially the available screencasts are highly praised.
Moreover, one can show a certain correlation between online and paper-pencil points. Students who are doing well online are typically also doing well in-class. Of course general motivation might also be a relevant factor to this correlation.
Even more interesting is the last comparison we are going to draw. Here grades of the modern and traditional approach are compared, where green is modern and red is traditional. What is obvious is, that there are way less negative grades (5) in the modern approach. A possible interpretation is, that due to the online points a lot of stress is taken off of the students during the paper-pencil tests. Students tend to be very nervous when it comes to f2f-tests, especially in often frightful subjects like mechanics. Already achieved online-points might relax this situation significantly. What can also be seen, though is that the very good students are seemingly not influenced by the specific approach followed in the group.
To conclude one can say that the modern approach is able to lower the barriers for passing and thus results in better average grades. It is also very well received by the students during evaluations and also in personal discussions with members of the Institute as well as the author himself.
In the future further adjustments are planned in the courses of the author. These are even more adjustment to the previous knowledge of the students by providing a larger pool of problem sets and switching to a full workshop like approach during f2f appointments, where students are solving more complex problems in groups and the lecturer is available as a consultant. Furthermore, online tests are converted to mastery tests containing not only questions specific to the online assignments but also further questions to check the „mastery“ of the underlying topic. And last but not least a very important topic for the author is to work more on screencasts, trying to embed them into stories. These stories should be constructed to build mental bridges for the students in order to improve memorization effects even more.
If you are interested in the full paper of this talk please download it here: