May 24th, 2010

Structuring Blended Courses for Maximum Student Engagement


Blended learning is gaining momentum in higher education…and for a very good reason. According to the U.S. Department of Education, blended learning can improve learning outcomes. To achieve better learning outcomes, however, blended courses need to be carefully structured to engage learners.

In an email interview, Dr. Ike Shibley, an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks, talked about blended course design and activities.

Q: One of the findings of a recent Department of Education report is that students who took all or part of their class online performed better than those taking the same course face-to-face. What accounts for this?

Shibley: We don’t know for sure why students in blended courses outperformed students in both traditional and online courses. I suspect the explanation lies with clarity and motivation: teachers who can talk to students face-to-face on a regular basis can address any confusion about the course layout or the content, plus the teacher can constantly remind students about assignments due that week. The online components are quite helpful and can help students succeed, but it seems that when you add even an hour of face-to-face time each week students will have a clearer conception of the course and will feel the pedagogical pressure to get their work done. Having that meeting time seems to me a powerful motivator.

Q: A recommended practice for online instructors is to have every aspect of the course ready to go on day one. Is this also the case for blended courses? Where can you build in flexibility?

Shibley: Anyone hoping to teach a blended course should have the course ready to go on day one. Organization is of utmost importance because students need to understand the course design so they can achieve maximal success.

Flexibility is built in when students make suggestions such as due dates for online quizzes: during face-to-face time an instructor can poll students about any possible changes. Another way to be flexible is to build in that flexibility. If you have a course where an instructor can exercise discretion about what extra topics to cover, he or she can create a poll as one of the first assignments in which students choose the most interesting topics from a drop-down list. Then the syllabus can reflect those topics.

Q: How do you communicate to the students what to expect? Do you recommend structuring each unit in the same way? Why or why not?

Shibley: Students quickly acclimate to any organizational structure that an instructor chooses. They have learned how to adjust. What they will not accept is changes throughout the course. Once they plan to have an online quiz every weekend the instructor cannot say, “Well, it’s not done yet so you can take it on Monday or Tuesday.” Students structure their time during a semester around their course requirements, but if a teacher keeps changing times or assignments then students feel like they are shooting at a moving target and will quickly get frustrated.

I am a bit compulsive, but I do believe that students benefit from having the same structure throughout a course. The instructor wants to teach content and the best way to achieve that is through a course design that is easy for students to follow. Then students are worried about learning the material instead of trying to figure out when assignments are due or what kind of assignment they have in any given week. Consistency in design will lead to improved student outcomes.

  • M.Ayar

    As an economist, I am not even sure about the finding that students who take class online performed better than those taking the same course face-to-face. I really need to see the study and verify that the finding is scientifically sound. Could you please put a link of this study somewhere on this website? Best.

  • John Rose

    Do some courses lend themselves better to blending than others. Chemistry vs. political science?

    • Amanda Wekenman

      Good question Mr. Josh Rose.

  • James Powell

    I have no doubt about these findings, having taught online, face-to-face and now, blended. My online students grasp the material in a far more detailed and intellectual manner than in my f2f class, but I can communicate much more intuitively, if you will, live with students. Blended courses are the best of both worlds….

    • Martha Palmer

      I totally agree. With f2f learning, there are so many distractions: what the person is wearing, what their voice sounds like, movement in the classroom, etc. Online, students are able to work at their own pace, repeat information when necessary, and it's technology – that's where they're at! I agree, best of both worlds.

  • Teri Bussler

    I enjoy organizing and the idea of knowing your entire scope and sequence with the running of my classroom now. In this model, Blending, I will be excited to structure things to meet a particular end knowing what is taught in what order. I envision the links that will be a part. I can see the concept of plugging into a system that utilizes technology as the vehicle. Very cool!

  • Cness

    I don't think blended learning can replace direct hands on instruction.

    • trish

      I don't think this article is attempting to suggest replacement of direct hands-on; only an addition to. Nothing can replace hands-on but hands-on!

  • LMcDaniel

    Blended Learning is highly motivational for students. Often it provides instant feedback or review options. Using technology in the classroom will help me meet the needs of my diverse learners.

  • Patti Hager

    Blended learning seems to me to be a better option than just on line alone. As an instructor, I am always wondering if they are working independently or is someone else providing the answers?

  • Liesa Zenk

    Blended learning provides the best of both worlds. Face -to-Face time with a teacher gives students the opportunity to question, practice, and explore with the security of immediate support. Learning through technology provides an opportunity to explore in a way that most students find motivational.

  • B. Deacon

    I can see of blended learning can be beneficial. The face-to-face time not only is a great question and answer time but also a time for students to get an understanding of what is expected of them. Computerized learning allows students to work at their own paces. This is great for the motivated student however, non motivated students especially need interaction. Sometimes that extra push will get them back on track. Also, face-to-face is important to help challenge students. Computerized learning does only so much since the courses are already put together. Teachers can take time to come up with extras for those students that need to be challenged.

  • Phil McVay

    I see the benefits of blended learning as it incorporates technology, face to face time, and allows several different structural approaches to be introduced into the classroom. I particularly like the self-paced instructional approach as this meets the various diverse needs of our students' needs.

  • Sally Triemstra

    Blended learning is a good option. I do believe that an test taking should be done in the presence of an instructor.

    • Holly

      I agree with you , Sally. You want to maintain integrity in the classroom!

  • Rube Nodarse

    I teach Spanish and am excited about the ability of blended learning to help low achievers and challenge those who are exceptional students. I think the greatest impact can be made with these two groups of students.

  • Christine LeDee

    I can appreciate blended learning as it will tap into the various learning styles of the students and allow each of them to have more control over their own learning and therefore, be accountable for learning.

  • Tom Finegan

    I am excited to incorporate blended learning in the classroom. I am a person who loves to be challenged and work at a faster pace. I know there are students in my classroom that would benefit from the blended learning model which allows students to work at their own pace with several formative check points along the way. I cannot wait to get started.

  • Carrie

    Sounds great for kids to work at their own pace. Must have reliable technology however.

  • William Yeomans

    I also believe in the idea that the actual test should be taken in person with the instructor

  • Lynn

    I agree- organization and consistency are key to success. Everyone's lives are busy. I think the benefits for all learning styles, the ability to clear up confusion, and the option to complete assignments or review them when you have time is powerful and motivating.

  • P Hooper

    I believe blended learning is a good way of making traditional ways of learning work with the new ways of learning.

  • K DeLeeuw

    I believe blended learning is a great concept in that it is motivational for students. It is taking the traditional way of teaching and making it more accessible to meet the educational needs of all learners (though various means of technology), however still providing a relational piece with the face to face as we know all students (especially K-12) need relationships/role models.

  • Dstemm

    A blend of many types of learning is good

  • sgd

    Blended learning would look very different at and early elementary level. To let 6 and 7 year olds control the pace and not doing face to face very much seems quite hard to imagine.

  • Deb Jones

    I understand the concept and, in theory, it sounds like an excellent idea. However, I believe it would be much more successful for high school students and maybe even 7th and 8th graders. Younger students would have a more difficult time moving away from direct instruction.

  • Hoppy

    I believe that blended learning will allow students to have the best of both worlds. Students like to work with technology. The blended learning approach allows for students to utilize technology in their learning. Students also get the face-to-face time with their instructor, so if they have questions, the instructor is there to help them out.

    • Annemarie

      I agree with Hoppy. I have had students try fully on-line classes and most students did not like the on-line course. Students need face-to-face and technology together. It is the best of both worlds.

    • Lisa Murdock

      I agree, because teachers only guide the students. The students are engaged to do the work by themselves.

  • Annemarie

    Students are very intuitive when it comes to technology and they are extremely creative as well. Combine those characteristics with a teacher teaching a subject area and allowing her students to apply their content to a project or activity that they produce using various apps. I'm always impressed by their energy and excitement when we do these activities.

  • Lauaren

    Students enjoy the variety that blended learning provides, in addtion to the convenience.

  • linda kunisch

    As a kindergarten teacher I believe it can enhance learning but never replace direct contact.

  • Jay

    I have been teaching for 28 years and I see the use of technology as a tool in the classroom but it should never replace the students or become the student. I see many students today automatically going to technology to answer everything instead of thinking about it first and then researching what needs to be done

  • Ljordan

    It looks like it might be a valuable component to blended learning.

  • Jeff

    I really believe that students need that need that face-to-face contact that goes with the blended learning concept. You can never really replace hands-on learning.

  • Terry

    Blending learning is successful because students are motivated to learn. Hands on learning and instruction is still essential for students growth.

  • diana

    Technology is a useful tool when used in conjunction with face to face instruction.

  • Sharon Krzyzaniak

    I think courses that are taught face to face is better because the students have a clearer understanding of what is required of them. I do agree that a blended classroom needs to be prepared from day one. Organization and flexibility is important. When we communicate to students what is required of them the course description needs to be easy to follow and structured.

  • murcy

    Convenience is key along with consistency. That is what makes blended learning so doable.

  • Randy Redman

    An additional benefit of blended learning is that it mixes the dynamic up from a traditional course structure. In a nutshell, there is more overall variety of communication, assignment types, etc.

  • Nancy Carey

    Blended learning works because it engages student in learning. The use of technology is a method to keep students engaged because they usually enjoy technology.

  • Dolly

    My question is does blended learning work when you have 55 fifth graders in one class. I heard him say 30 students but it is a rarity that I have 30. 42, 46 up to 55. When trying to do online lesson, I have so many students on games, football or music videos. I have given assignments related to these but it gets worst rather than better.

  • Michelle Wolfe

    What does the blended learning style research show for special needs students"

  • Rainy

    Blended learning engages all students at their individual levels.

  • Paula Chalupa

    Blended will engage students at their level of learning and understanding.
    Planning and organizing ahead will be very important.

  • Judy

    I appreciate the varied projects the students come up with. Many never occurred to me. I love their input.

  • Mike

    Dolly makes a great observation, distractions online. This is where it can be a deal breaker, if the distractions prevent the learning. My solution would be to go old school and limit the power of the computer and its connectedness. A instructional machine would have the ability to connect for specific purposes only. It is like the computer is a terminal to a dedicated machine instead of the whole internet. Another systematic solution is to use CDs or DVDs to give the information. Results would be available to print out or email to the teacher. A more integrated system would do this automatically to "email" the results to the teacher. Online servers could serve as the go between and make the data into more useable format than a simple email. But that would be the parallel concept.

  • Mike(BLiC – REMC'15)

    BTW, this reading is part of a BLiC course for PD through Michigan REMC. Feel free to put a reference to BLiC or REMC in your comment. Dozens of teachers in Michigan are taking this course now. I would assume that future BLiC course takers could be directed here also. Mike

  • Shelley

    I believe that students do in fact perform better with blended learning. They are technology wizards. They are use to using their technology with everything. There aren't rotary phones, they don't know what a record album is but they know how to google information and use their i-phones from history to mathematics.

  • Guest

    Blended learning appears to have great value. I agree having the "live" teacher adds strength to the course.

  • Wordsworth

    "An hour of face-to-face time each week students will have a clearer conception of the course and will feel the pedagogical pressure to get their work done. Having that meeting time seems to me a powerful motivator."
    I am interested to see how much education future" teachers" will need in order to be facilitators instead of teachers.
    I do agree that there are times when blending in on line learning is beneficial. We just have to be careful.

  • Frederica

    I also think that we have to consider the type of learner we are. For myself, I like to research online, but to take a course, I prefer to see the instructor face to face. I like the spontaneous interaction that you can't get from online. Although, you can do part of the learning from an online course and then meet face-to-face for discussions.

  • Barb

    I believe blended learning gives students a great opportunity to be independent learners but have teacher support available at the same time.

  • Edna Williams

    As an educator, blended learning is a tremendous learning concept that enhances academic achievement for all students within the classroom setting.