A new way to learn

Blended learning offers more hands-on opportunities, classroom interaction

By Jill Pease
In this biostatistics course, students view online lectures and readings at home and use class time to work on group activities and assignments with instructor Dr. Amy Cantrell on hand to help them work through stumbling blocks.  Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

In this biostatistics course, students view online lectures and readings at home and use class time to work on group activities and assignments with instructor Dr. Amy Cantrell on hand to help them work through stumbling blocks. Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

Kendra Krietsch admits she was skeptical about her first blended learning class.

The second-year clinical psychology doctoral student worried that a course that blends in-person and virtual instruction would be impersonal and lack opportunities for interactions with her instructor and classmates.

It wasn’t long before her fears were put to rest.

“Actually, I’ve had the opposite experience,” said Krietsch, who is taking her third and fourth blended learning courses this fall. “The (blended learning) format has really allowed for more interaction and time to talk about issues and problems that are more practical or will affect us on a day-to-day basis.”

That type of “rich, meaningful” interaction is exactly what blended learning is designed to offer, said George Hack, Ph.D., the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ instructional designer.

“Instead of a traditional model with an instructor getting up and disseminating information in one-way communication, with blended learning the face-to-face classroom becomes more interactive, generally centered around problems or projects that are somewhat ill-defined, more like reality,” he said. “When we’re teaching things like clinical reasoning, now you can put the students in a more authentic situation and guide them through it, modeling the decision-making process for them so they can see how an expert does it, asking them questions and getting them to discover some of these processes on their own as much as you can.”

A 2009 U.S. Department of Education analysis of dozens of studies found that blended learning may be more effective than online-only or traditional face-to-face formats in improving student achievement and increasing the amount of time students spend learning. In 2012, a PHHP task force began exploring blended learning methods and technologies and the college hired Hack earlier this year to help interested faculty members transition their courses to a blended learning format.

Instructors of blended learning classes typically use a course management system, which creates an online space for the class. There, teachers can post recorded lectures, PowerPoint presentations, readings, quizzes and links to other online resources, such as YouTube. Students can participate in online discussions and collaborative assignments.

Blended learning models can take many forms, but one of the most recognizable is the “flipped classroom.” In this format, students watch the instructors’ lectures online, outside of the classroom, and then use class time to work on assignments.

Amy Cantrell, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of biostatistics in PHHP and the College of Medicine, uses this approach in her biostatistics courses. Course materials, such as a textbook with embedded self-learning quizzes, activities and short video lectures, are available online for the students’ review prior to class. Students spend all of class time working on assignments and group activities.

“This transition from a traditional lecture to a blended learning model has been very successful,” Cantrell said. “The presentation of (statistics) software skills in online tutorials allows me to give this instruction to the class in a way that allows each student the flexibility to review the content when it is most convenient and to repeat the information as needed to complete the assignments.”

Eugene Dunne, a third-year clinical psychology doctoral student, is taking his first blended learning class this fall, a multivariate statistics class taught by Michael Marsiske, Ph.D., an associate professor in clinical and health psychology. The format allows for a lot of in-class time for group problem solving with the instructor close by to assist.

“Having Dr. Marsiske there in the room is great because if he gets a sense that you’re struggling he’ll come over and ask us how we’re doing,” Dunne said. “If we have any questions we can raise our hands and he’ll spend time with the group at that moment, helping us understand where we’re stuck and walking us through it.

“This is my fifth statistics class and this is definitely the way to learn it.”

Krietsch appreciates the more active role students take in a blended learning environment.

“I think that students of my generation are used to coming to a class maybe having read a little bit, but feeling like we’re going to be passively absorbing information a teacher gives us,” she said. “With the blended learning model it’s much more collaborative. We’re expected to look at the material and figure out what we don’t understand so that we can come to class more prepared and ready to ask questions that are already informed.”

In the blended learning format, occupational therapy students have more time for hands-on learning. Here, students in the therapeutic skills class learn dressing skills, including the use of adaptive equipment, for patients who have experienced a stroke or hip fracture. Photo by Mindy Miller.

In the blended learning format, occupational therapy students have more time for hands-on learning. Here, students in the therapeutic skills class learn dressing skills, including the use of adaptive equipment, for patients who have experienced a stroke or hip fracture. Photo by Mindy Miller.

Faculty members in the department of occupational therapy, which implemented blended learning into the Master of Occupational Therapy curriculum, are also seeing a difference in their students’ readiness for class, said Emily Pugh, M.A., OTR/L, the program director and associate in occupational therapy.

“This group is thinking at much more depth at this point in time than previous students were,” she said. “They’re asking really good questions that show they’ve thought through the material. We’re hoping that translates to better participation and competence in the clinic as well as when they take their board exams.”

The occupational therapy courses follow the flipped model, freeing up class time for hands-on learning. Previous occupational therapy students have asked for more hands-on experience before starting their clinical internships, and with blended learning, the faculty are able to give it to them, Pugh said.

“One area the students have felt they need more practice on was taking the assessments and deciding what to do in the clinic environment,” she said. “The flipped classroom is so good for teaching that clinical reasoning. In class, students can listen to how you would solve a problem or, better yet, they can solve it together in groups.”

Currently 17 PHHP courses use some sort of blended learning component, with more planned for the spring.

Moving her courses to the blended learning format has been a win-win, Pugh said.

“It’s been a learning experience for all the faculty, and we really enjoy that,” she said. “It’s renewing and motivating and it allows us to be more creative. It has been valuable not just for the students, but for the faculty too.”

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