Modular Assignments: Learning Episodes for Diverse Students

On our campus, we have growing numbers of nontraditional students. The demands on their time out of class are numerous—work, family, and military obligations. It is my job to meet them where they can learn and benefit.

One tool that I have used in a general education biology course is a suite of modules that allow creativity, encourage initiative, and make use of analysis and writing. These modules are more or less traditional assignments, but in shorter formats. I have designed them with two facts in mind: students have other demands on their time regardless of my memories of the way things used to be in my undergraduate days, and the digital, virtual world of computing doesn’t solve all workload problems or learning objectives for either the students or myself.

My goals have changed—they aren’t as lofty as they once were. I recognize now that I am not training the next cohort of professionals in a survey course. I want students to see the relevance of topics they may disdain or find confusing. It would be nice if after they finish my class, they could read articles in the newspaper (or online) and understand how that information relates to them personally, locally, or even globally. Perhaps they’ll simply have a better shot at understanding their physician, if someday the doc sits on the front of her desk, leans in with nonverbal attentiveness, and hits them with, “We need to talk about your test results. The histologist found evidence of a melanoma in your biopsy.”

Almost any traditional assignment can be modularized. For example, I have used one that links a student’s journal record of dietary intake, interpretation of the FDA nutrition labels, and the biologically important macromolecules. With that, I was able to take advantage of timely information on military “First Strike” rations or even the daily diet of Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps, for comparison to daily intakes. Another module ties in the study of genetics to family genealogy and human genetic variations or disorders. Another, coordinated with a photosynthesis lab, relates data in absorptance spectral graphs to environmental research in remote sensing.

As these examples illustrate, I now accomplish course goals by engaging the students in more pointed, brief units that fit the time demands of their diverse lives. Modules like these also show students that what they study in courses, even required courses not necessarily in their fields, is relevant to their everyday lives.

I have heard the youngest of our university students referred to as the “episode generation.” That may be an apt description, but it doesn’t fit the diverse student population I teach. Some of them thrive on epic dramas, while others prefer miniseries, and still others love their sitcoms. With a number of modules that I have used through the years, getting each to engage in a way that maintains his or her interest involves creation of something like an episode of learning. Comparisons, technical writing, journaling, even value calls on issues involving course information can successfully yield reasonably savvy students. As with episodes online or on TV, these modules also allow for a certain amount of “product placement”—the course content we hope for them to learn.

Rolland Fraser is an assistant professor in the Biology and Environmental Health Department at Missouri Southern State University.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, Volume 23, Number 4.