Headshot of Brian M. Morgan

This is a guest post by Brian M. Morgan, Chair and Associate Professor of the Computer and Information Technology Department at Marshall University, and Blackboard MVP.

Think for a moment about your higher education experience. How did you best absorb material when you were enrolled as a student in college? How did course materials and lectures provided by your instructors help you get the most out of a course, or help you to learn the material?  What resources provided by the instructor helped you study for exams? What courses do you feel were personalized to you? Undoubtedly, not all material was easy to grasp. Perhaps it felt like you were not learning enough based on how material was presented to you. It happened to all of us.

When teaching in an online environment, you have a chance to overcome the shortcomings you may have felt you were presented with when you were a student. How so? If you reflect on how you learned best and what did not work for you, you will realize that not everyone around you will have the same experience, and that not everyone can learn through the same learning styles.

To make matters worse, there are literally dozens of websites that present learning style definitions and many of those differ. You can never cover every style and accommodate everyone in a course, but what you can do is provide content in a personalized manner to students to help them individually through their own style of learning.

I recently completed the “Applying the QM Rubric” workshop from Quality Matters and it initiated a reevaluation of my courses and specifically how I present material to students. One of the QM components is providing personalized learning through standards. These standards help organize content and ensure each course is of the highest quality possible by requiring certain material/content to be present. Here are three methods I use to try to personalize learning for online students:

#1. Provide content in multiple formats

When I first started teaching online, I simply posted my syllabus, notes, assignments, and exams online and more or less turned students loose. That was 18 years ago. I was green, and the field was new to me and most others at my university. I was not exactly sure how to best proceed. After all, in the classroom, I lectured from my notes, students took exams, and turned in assignments. My first attempt to translate that to an online environment was very raw.

Teaching online is much more than just posting summaries and notes online, especially with students of varying backgrounds, disciplines, and most importantly learning styles. For this reason, I try to incorporate as many different techniques and offer content in several different formats in my online courses.

For example, in my intro to C++ course, I have my lecture notes but also a list of YouTube videos that are related to the chapter content that is being presented. I also provide detailed examples of code that relates to the topics covered. Students can learn by reading, watching, hearing, reviewing, or actively participating in a hands-on fashion by coding their own sample projects pertaining to a chapter’s main themes.

I found over the years that students who were visual learners would ask for additional content other than just notes, and in turn, do better on projects after I started posting videos. Many people seem to think that posting their lectures will suffice for video content, but if you have strong notes, that is just another way to review the notes. For my courses, posting additional content in video form helped not only my online students, but also those traditional students taking the same class.

An advantage of teaching computer programming is that many coding techniques for beginning courses do not change, allowing me to create a different example or two each semester and add them to the repository of examples that I have online for students. Students have come to expect this and enjoy this in my classes.

#2. Provide detailed, personalized feedback

Another way in which I am able to help students in a personalized manner is through feedback that I provide on their assignments. Yes, grading each project individually and providing feedback that is tailored to that student takes more time than simple rubric grading or cutting and pasting, but it helps the student see exactly what they did wrong and provide them hints and tips for future success.

For example, I use a base rubric for grading my C++ projects. Let’s say one of the comments is -5 for weak or missing inline documentation. If a student has weak documentation, it is easy just to check off the mark in the rubric or copy and paste the above into the Assignment’s feedback box, but what good does that do if the student is not sure why their documentation was deemed weak? By varying the feedback I provide to the individual, a student can learn from their mistakes and enhance future submissions. I may provide a student with feedback such as:

Your inline documentation is weak for this project. For example, where you state “function prototypes,” you should provide documentation on each prototype, giving a brief statement on what each function will do. Also, instead of stating that “this is an if statement,” give some rationale to why the if statement exists, such as if statement to check for even or odd value. For additional clarification, see the Programming Style Guide provided under the Course Content section here in Blackboard Learn.

Many times a student turns in incomplete or substandard work because that is what they felt was required and accurate to complete the problem. Therefore, by providing detailed, personalized feedback, you aid those that may not have understood the problem completely to begin with. Feedback should be constructive and positive in support of the student’s learning, which can still be achieved even when pointing out errors.

#3.  Support learning for struggling students

Students will never experience the same level of success in a course, no matter what you have provided all of them in terms of content and feedback. However, you can still personalize the experience for those that appear to be struggling with content and concepts in order to help them. Even if it takes a bit of extra time, the sheer enjoyment of helping students succeed when all else does not seem to be working should be worth it.

With traditional courses, you can call students in to your office and help them during office hours, and point out in person mistakes they might be making. With online collaboration and video tools such as Skype, Blackboard Collaborate, or Slack, connecting to students in your online classes and providing them with a visual pep talk, collaborative work session, etc. when they may be struggling may mean the world to them.

Brian Morgan is the Chair and Associate Professor of the Computer and Information Technology Department. He has taught at Marshall University for the past 16 years, and previously held the role of Director for the Center for Instructional Technology at Marshall, and was also the university’s WebCT administrator. Brian has taught over 75 sections of courses in a 100% online environment and uses Blackboard in some capacity for all of his courses.

Case Study: Learn how NOVA uses tech to personalize online learning

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