Online Teaching Resources | How Do Students Learn?

In the Chronicle of Higher Education blog Wired Campus, Ellen Wexler summarizes a new report from Carnegie Mellon, “Learning is Not a Spectator Sport: Doing is Better Than Watching for Learning from a MOOC.” Using data culled from an online course in which students were given two paths — passive or active learning — the study showed that students who were tested on knowledge they had received through listening to lectures and reading did not learn as much in the course as those who were asked to listen less and use what they had learned in a continual series of exercises. Why? No matter how hard we try, most people misapprehend things about what they have heard or read, and it is important to disrupt those misapprehensions quickly.

Wexler writes:

All of the students were assigned 11 weekly quizzes and a final examination. Those in the MOOC-only course scored an average of 57 percent on the final. Those in the combined course scored an average of 66 percent. And when students in the combined course completed an interactive activity, they learned six times as much as those who only read the material or watched a video.

“When one is watching a lecture or reading material, there’s an illusion of learning,” says Ken Koedinger, a professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, and an author of a report on the study. “Lessons communicated in a lecture don’t stick.”

When students listen to a lecture or read text, Mr. Koedinger says, it is easy for them to feel confident that they know the material. But that feeling is deceptive, because sometimes students come away from lectures with misconceptions. And without trying to replicate what they’ve learned in lectures or receiving feedback on their work, they won’t know when they’re making mistakes.

But this isn’t enough. Instructors in online courses need to be transparent with students about why they are asking for so much activity: when students understand why a course is run the way it is, and what the paths to learning are, they are more likely to make an effort.