Sometimes a teachable moment occurs when a student is stuck, other times it’s when a topic has sparked her interest. In an email interview, Eric Frierson, an instructional technology librarian at the University of Texas–Arlington, shares strategies for online instructors to capitalize on both types of teachable moments.
Q: How do you determine the points in a course in which a student will need or want more information on a topic?
Frierson: Perspective and anticipation. So many times we get caught up in our own expertise in our subject, we forget to think about our course content from the students’ perspective and then anticipate where they will struggle. By thinking like a novice, identifying these moments becomes easier.
Q: What formats do you prefer for this additional material and why?
Frierson: Learning styles vary, certainly, so a variety of formats can be used to engage students when they need or want more information. With content-rich sites like YouTube nearly universally accessible, finding additional content–even good video content–is becoming very easy to do.
Q: How do you keep this material from being a distraction for students who choose to access it?
Frierson: This calls for a serious look at the learning goals you have for your class, and how relevant the additional material is to those learning goals. Will the added information enrich their learning? If so, I’d hardly call students choosing to access this material a distraction. Stating up front that these materials are optional will help.
Q: Do you leave it up to the students to determine whether they need more information, or do you embed quizzes for students to take before moving on to the next part of the course?
Frierson: It depends on what kind of teachable moment you’re dealing with. Additional material posted for your eager learners are there to supplement and enhance the learning of intrinsically motivated students. Those who aren’t interested in a topic don’t have to engage with that material; it’s up to the students. However, quizzes can be the best way to connect students who lack certain skills with the additional materials they need to make adequate progress in your course—these are often not optional for student success.
Q What do students say about this supplemental material?
Frierson: The results are more in how students interact with the material. For example, when I posted a slam poem about teachers to my course Science in the Middle Levels, the students began a self-directed discussion on teacher salaries, professionalism, and the quality of education in the United States. I was able to take their comments as reasoning for the more theoretical discussion we had on lesson design.
Q: What do you tell them about using the materials? Do you recommend that they spend a certain amount of time on it, or are they on their own?
Frierson: They are on their own. I don’t say they are required, and the syllabus explicitly states what is graded, but many participate anyway because it’s something that’s innately interesting to them or it’s something they feel they need in order to succeed.