Blended Learning: The Stockwells Test Teaching Methods

September 08, 2015

A few years ago biochemist Brent Stockwell became concerned that his traditional methods of teaching—comprised of textbook readings, in-class lectures and tests—weren’t effectively reaching his students. So the professor of biological sciences and chemistry began tweaking his undergraduate course called “Structure and Metabolism.”

He transferred his lecture material to videos so his students could watch lectures before class, and he restructured classroom time to have students solve problems in groups. He used a polling service to ask students—anonymously and in real time—what they got from that day’s lesson, and their answers informed his subsequent presentations.

Was his new approach working? He wasn’t sure. “I wondered, ‘Where can I find an expert in randomized controlled trials who would work with me on this?’”

Stockwell and his wife, Melissa, an associate professor of pediatrics and population and family health at Columbia University Medical Center, frequently discuss their work over dinner. One night it hit him. “I realized my wife does clinical trials for a living.”

Now they are co-authors of an unconventional paper in the Aug. 27 issue of the journal Cell, which demonstrates how blended learning techniques enhance both student engagement and performance in science education. The students’ exam grades improved as a result of the in-class problem solving, and the video assignments increased attendance and satisfaction, they found.

“In medicine clinical trials are common, and my expertise is in pragmatic trials in real-life settings,” said Melissa Stockwell. “It really fit well with Brent’s work when he wanted to test these methods in his class. And it was exciting for me to use what I know from the medical field and apply it in a new area.”

Then there was the serendipity factor: “We’ve been married for 15 years, but this is our first opportunity to collaborate together—other than our children,” she said.

Now their collaboration outside the home may have an impact on teaching and learning at Columbia and many other institutions that have been investing in online learning.

Q What made you want to change the way you teach?

Brent: I’ve sat through many lectures over the years and have discovered that it’s fun to sit in the back and do your home shopping, plan your vacation, check your Facebook. You’re half listening and you feel like you’re getting enough, but you’re just not learning as well. If what matters to us as instructors is coming up with the most effective learning strategies, then we have to convince students that it’s worth the investment of energy to engage in an active process where they’re really doing something in class and not just half listening. I realized that with the traditional method of assigning a textbook and giving a lecture, a lot of students just weren’t coming to class anymore. They weren’t learning, and they weren’t motivated to learn

Q What was the methodology of the study?

Melissa: We took 111 students and randomized them into four groups, dividing them by gender and also by how well they were doing in the class up to that point. We did that to avoid biasing the results based on any kind of imbalance between the groups. It was completely optional and didn’t affect the students’ grades, but a good percentage of the students really wanted to be part of the study. I think it shows how students are interested in different kinds of learning.

Brent: The students were assigned either a chapter from a textbook or they were given a video on the same material that I had prepared for them. When they came to class, the first group had a traditional lecture, where I told them the questions and the answers. Those who had the video got the same material—but with problems embedded in it that they had to solve themselves. The content was exactly the same

Q The videos of you lecturing were available to the students before class?

Brent: Yes. I explained the material, made some slides and recorded it on my computer. Then I uploaded that video to the course website so they could watch it as many times as they wanted, go back and review it, stop at different points. They’ve said they really appreciate having that opportunity because it gives them a chance to see the material in a way they never could before, when it was delivered just once in a lecture in class.

Q What changes did you see in this learning approach?

Brent: There was a big difference in performance on subsequent exams: the second group did much better. It’s the actual process of working through the problems that allows the students to internalize the knowledge and draw on it later. If you sat in the lecture, then the information was just passing you by.

Melissa: By doing it this way we were able to look at the impact of the beforehand preparation, the video versus the text, as well as the impact of different teaching methods in class. It was as real life as we could get. That makes us feel comfortable that if this method were used in other classroom settings, it should be effective.

Q Can you describe what it was like when students were divided into groups and working on problems?

Brent: Let’s say we were trying to learn how fatty acids are made. I would give them a particular problem to solve. But in order to solve that problem, they would have to understand the entire process—all the steps involved. Now, if I were standing in front of the classroom throwing out exam questions, they’d give me an answer and it would be either right or wrong. But as I was walking around the room, listening in on their small-group conversations, I could see how they were thinking about these questions, how maybe I hadn’t phrased something correctly in the lectures, or how they had misunderstood some subtle point. So it gave me a lot more insight into what they actually knew. And that’s the kind of insight you can get when you put students in this kind of interactive setting.

Q How has the trial changed your approach to teaching?

Brent: It’s definitely changed the way I teach. I realize now how powerful it is to pose these problems in class and have students work in real time and struggle for the answer. It’s the struggle that leads to the learning rather than just being told the answer. So now I’m doing that a lot more.

Melissa: We also asked the students how satisfied they were with the class, and the students taking the class found both versions equally satisfying. But they learned better when they were in the class where they had to do the problem-solving themselves. That shows there was something in the methodology that’s helping them to learn better.

Q Your study looks only at your biochemistry class. Do the findings go beyond that?

Brent: There’s nothing in the study that limits it to science. Although we only looked at this particular class in biochemistry, we assume that the methodology could apply broadly to all kinds of students and all kinds of subjects.

Melissa: It’s clear that having people learn in more practical ways on their own, as well as through problem-solving, is really effective in teaching. I think that people are going to start to teach and learn using these methods in all different kinds of subjects.

Q What are the implications of this study for online learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOCs)?

Brent: With online learning, you can get many lectures for free over the Internet from faraway places. So one has to ask, what’s the added value of going to a place like Columbia and actually paying for that degree and that education? Part of that can and should be this kind of interactive class session where you’re taking advantage of the proximity of your professor and peers in real time.

Melissa: There’s something about learning through problem-solving that was captured in this study. When you’re in a classroom, there’s interaction with the professor. The questions can be answered by the professor and by fellow students. That really helps learning and teaches college students that they should be looking toward their peers to learn from each other, in college and long after they graduate.

Q What kind of real-time trials are you running in your health clinics?

Melissa: My work primarily focuses on vaccination in the community. Most of the trials have to do with the most effective tools to remind parents that their children are due for vaccinations. We text parents reminders about what vaccinations are due. And we’ve learned that adding educational information into the text messages makes them more effective than conventional reminders that just say that the child is due for a vaccine.

Q You say you’re already changed your teaching methods as a result of the trial. Are you going to keep tweaking this model in the future?

Brent: Well, I certainly won’t rely exclusively on a textbook. I’ll use video lectures and assign them in advance. And then in class I’ll be doing this active kind of problem-solving. Going forward, we can try and layer more innovations on top of that, ask other questions about what are even more effective ways for students to learn.

Q Did you have help in creating the course?

Brent: The Columbia Center on New Media Teaching and Learning played an essential role in this trial. We worked with an educational technologist, Michael Cennamo, who is listed as a co-author of the study. He provided the technological expertise as well as a lot of insight into how to incorporate different technologies into the class, including how to make and post the videos; how to evaluate effectiveness; how to set up the problem-solving groups in real time; and how to measure audience response.

Melissa: I think that we’re so fortunate at Columbia that we have technologists who can help us with new ways of teaching. It makes it so much easier for people who are new to this to have people they can work with, who know how to do this with such expertise.

— By Beth Kwon and Bridget O'Brian

— Video By Columbia News Video Team