Reflections on different engagement techniques whilst teaching online

Guest post by Seun Osituyo

Seun Osituyo is a Lecturer in Accounting and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She teaches Management Accounting, Introduction to Accounting and Auditing. Her research interests include risk disclosure, risk management, sustainability communication and strategic management accounting practices.

Student engagement is a very useful part of our job as tutors as it helps us check that learning has taken place (Butcher, Davies and Highton, 2006). But what exactly do I mean by student engagement here? Authors such as Axelson and Flick (2011) suggest that student engagement could lie somewhere between a serious commitment to mere appearance in the classroom. Relating student engagement to learning, Astin (1999) suggests that learning could be a reflection of both “quantity and quality of students’ physical and psychological energy” invested. This brings me to my adapted definition of student engagement –

being present and actively participating during teaching sessions, to check that learning outcomes are achieved.

My quest was to find out what was happening behind those black screens during the synchronous lectures and seminars and to identify other ways to promote active participation in this covid era.

Here I would share my thoughts and experience on student engagement from teaching both quantitative and qualitative accounting modules in this academic year.

What proved useful in Term 1 of 2020-2021 academic session?

Qualitative accounting modules are largely delivered to students at the more advanced undergraduate level or postgraduate level. The nature of topics for the module I taught in term 1 required students to read selected academic research articles on the related topics each week and prepare to discuss at the seminar. The terms endogenous connections (making connections with the research articles) and exogenous connections (application) are very useful here (Strømsø, Bråten, and Samuelstuen, 2003). Students were expected not only to read and understand the research articles but to make sense of it and apply to what they already know and to real life situations. During my first lecture with the cohort I did a poll where I asked students to choose if they preferred purely calculation-based exam questions or purely discursive exam questions. The responses I received inspired the need to ensure that they were evidently engaged, on the discursive topics!

The lecture materials were designed in a way that I could ask questions from time to time not only about what I covered but to see how students would apply the concept to ‘real situations’. For example, when teaching on the topic Accountability, students were asked to discuss the question – ‘Who is the University of Sussex accountable to’ in breakout rooms. At the start of a seminar and lecture most times, I re-emphasised that working in groups might be more beneficial for discursive topics as they will get to actively learn from each other. The key here was keeping the breakout room discussions very short. Oftentimes I would share a file with instruction and time (usually five minutes to discuss and two minutes to put a summary of the discussion on a virtual board e.g. Padlet).

It must be noted that not all students used the breakout rooms. Some students used the breakout rooms to discuss research articles and lots of ideas in summary were provided by one student from each virtual group on Padlet. Some students preferred not to join breakout rooms but provided individual answers on Padlet. Sometimes (in very few occasions) students felt comfortable to unmute themselves and discuss their summaries during the seminars. Many did not. Taking into consideration the individual circumstances of people, these summaries were then discussed by the tutor. It was interesting to see different ideas on Padlet and more so that all of them get to see what other (virtual) groups thought about the articles. In all of this, I said to myself – “as long as we find a way to communicate with one another, there is an opportunity for learning to take place”. This was also useful for me to check that the learning outcomes were achieved both during the seminars and lectures. On reflection, I probably could have recorded only parts where I spoke at the seminar.

My experience in the quantitative accounting module in term 1 was quite different. Students engaged more using the chat section possibly because questions were mainly calculation-based. Students will be given a question to answer within the timeframe (e.g. seven minutes) and then put the result in the chat section. I will of course go over the explanation again for students that did not get it right. Verbal responses from students were not popular especially when all participants were online. On reflection, maybe breakout rooms might have also worked for calculation-based seminars.

What have I tried in Term 2?

OK, I did not stop there. In term 2 I wanted to introduce flipped learning through asynchronous teaching in one of my modules. My reasons for this were as follows.

Firstly, flipped learning provides individual students with the autonomy to learn at their own pace within reason. In addition to attempting seminar questions, Fisher, Perényi and Birdthistle (2018) suggest that flipped learning provides students with an individual learning space where they can be confident about their knowledge of concepts. Of course, the use of inappropriate pedagogy might lead to resistance of this approach by students. Hence the students should be able to see how the flipped learning materials link to the overall module content (Turan and Goktas, 2016). So, in most cases, I would split one of the topic learning outcomes into smaller unit objectives and create content based on these objectives.   

Secondly, I observed some colleagues both in my school and in other institutions who have used pre-recorded videos and they gave good feedback especially on student engagement.

Thirdly, depending on numerous factors, such as different time zones, some students may be unable to join all synchronous lectures. Yes, the synchronous lectures can be recorded, and real-time interactions between the lecturer or tutor and students are beneficial but students who are unable to attend the live sessions at all especially due to reasons beyond their control (e.g. broadband issues) may feel excluded and have less opportunity to fully engage with the module, in my opinion, if all lectures and seminars are synchronous. I also wanted to offer an opportunity for students to learn both asynchronously and synchronously and appreciate their distinctive benefits.

Lastly, I still very much wanted to have more interactive live sessions with students. My thoughts were if students understand the basics of what we would cover during the synchronous lecture beforehand, it will yield a more useful and interactive synchronous session.

To ensure that students had the opportunity to fully participate during the synchronous lecture, the pre-lecture videos were provided well in advance. I embedded at least one quiz in most pre-lecture videos which students will have to attempt before proceeding to the other parts of the video. I will then collate student responses and discuss at the start of the synchronous lecture. This was very useful to check that what I explained in the video was understood.

Did this improve active participation at the synchronous lecture?

In comparison to last term, I will say yes. More students actively participated during the synchronous lecture. Students answered questions when asked, and asked questions. The discussion seemed to flow well. In some cases, we were able to quickly move into numerical questions during the synchronous lecture, which I would ask them to attempt first by applying their knowledge from the concepts covered in the pre-lecture video. This seemed to work well as some students came up with the right answer.

I am not sure if this is related but the attendance rate has also been very good on this module. We are now in week 5 and we have had at least 70% of students attending the synchronous lecture every week out of a class of over 200 students. This is slightly better than my term 1 attendance rate. Although I would not want to make an unfair comparison here as this is an entirely different cohort from the students that I taught in term 1 and it is also a different module. Other factors might have played a role in this, for example the synchronous lecture for this module starts at 9 am on Monday.

Student feedback about the pre-lecture videos collected during one of the synchronous lectures suggests that the pre-lecture videos have also been useful for them. Here are just a few comments from the feedback:

“allows you to be flexible, able to watch the videos when it is the best time for you.”

“well paced and interactive”.

Future implications

Providing different opportunities for students to engage such as flipped learning and group discussions with the aid of technology enhanced learning tools promote active participation. One thing is certain, if I had not attended trainings provided by the Higher Education Academy (now Advanced HE) and used some of these skills in my teaching during the pre-covid era, I might have found student engagement in these times a bit challenging. Trainings provided by TEL Sussex were very useful and applying these skills have contributed to the more ‘engaged’ classroom I now have.

Group discussions:

These have always been encouraged on discursive modules (Bruun, Lindahl and Linder, 2019). I am now introducing virtual group discussions to first year students. Students should be encouraged to use it more, in my opinion, as if used properly stimulates active learning and helps build a sense of community for students. Group discussions can be in different forms and do not necessarily need to be verbal e.g. using virtual blackboards like Padlet. More importantly, students should be able to communicate with each other in the way they feel best.

Will I consider using flipped learning in the post-covid era?

Flipped learning is not a new teaching approach and has been used since the 1990s. I have come to appreciate the usefulness of providing pre-lecture activities especially with uncertainties facing us tutors where we are sometimes not able to tell what happens behind those screens. The flipped learning approach makes the class more active, we are able to address any concerns about the introductory aspect of a topic as soon as possible (e.g. at the start of the synchronous lecture), before moving on to the more technical aspects. I felt the teaching and learning flowed more, with a very good attendance rate at the synchronous lectures. Although making these videos can be tedious and time consuming, the benefits are endless. If practical, I will use them again.

References:

Astin, A. W. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education.

Axelson, R. D., & Flick, A. (2010). Defining student engagement. Change: The magazine of higher learning43(1), 38-43.

Bruun, J., Lindahl, M., & Linder, C. (2019). Network analysis and qualitative discourse analysis of a classroom group discussion. International Journal of Research & Method in Education42(3), 317-339.

Butcher, C., Davies, C., & Highton, M. (2006). Designing learning: From module outline to effective teaching. UK: Routledge.

Fisher, R., Perényi, Á., & Birdthistle, N. (2018). The positive relationship between flipped and blended learning and student engagement, performance and satisfaction. Active Learning in Higher Education, 1469787418801702.

Strømsø, H. I., Bråten, I., & Samuelstuen, M. S. (2003). Students’ strategic use of multiple sources during expository text reading: A longitudinal think-aloud study. Cognition and instruction21(2), 113-147.

Turan, Z., & Goktas, Y. (2016). The Flipped Classroom: instructional efficiency and impact of achievement and cognitive load levels. Journal of e-learning and knowledge Society12(4).

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