A Three-Pronged Approach to Improving Online Student Engagement, Critical Thinking

Monica Rothschild-Boros, an art appreciation and cultural anthropology instructor at Orange Coast College, uses a combination of embedded lecture questions, threaded discussion, and innovative assignments to engage students and get them to think critically in her online courses.

Online lectures
Rothschild-Boros offers her online lectures in several formats. She creates them as PowerPoint presentations and includes narration, converts them to pdf, and uploads them into iTunes, “so [students] can take them to the beach and have no excuse for having trouble accessing the lecture.”

In addition to offering the lectures in students’ preferred formats, she includes embedded questions within each, sometimes up to 10 per lecture, that ensures that students read the material and that they think about it more deeply than they might otherwise.

Some of the questions are straightforward and are intended to demonstrate that the students have viewed the lecture and read the textbook and supplemental readings. Others are open ended and encourage students to explore how the concepts relate to them personally.

For example, in a unit on gender, student asked to read a series of articles and answer the question, Which of these articles made you look at the issue of gender differently and why? In a lecture on sex and marriage, she asks students, “Have you ever been subjected to the Romeo and Juliette question—who you can and can’t marry? Have your parents ever made and endogamous or exogamous restrictions on you? All of a sudden it applies to them. For some it’s a revelation, and because the course is online, some students are much more forthcoming than they would be in the on-campus class.”

Students submit their answers to Rothschild-Boros, and she reads them and offers feedback, including an “answer key that gives my ideal answer to the question plus a variety of answers that other students have given that I thought were excellent answers.”

Although this approach is labor intensive for the instructor, it seems to get good results. Students often say that they never thought they could do so much work and that they view the world differently as a result of thinking about these questions.

As the instructor and the one reviewing and offering feedback on students responses to these questions, Rothschild-Boros makes it a point to ask questions that will likely result in interesting answers from students to help keep her engaged in the course as well.

Discussion forums
Rothschild-Boros uses threaded discussions to get students to interact on hot-button issues. As with the embedded lecture questions, the goal with these discussion forums is to make the course more relevant and engaging.

One rule of these forums is that each student needs to make a unique contribution rather than repeating one another. For example, in a unit on modernization, she asks, What gadget or innovation would they like to eliminate if they could? Each student has to come up with a different one and explain why he or she chose it and what the invention has done to the culture. “They’re looking at the concept of modernization, and it becomes real to them on a personal level.”

Just because a course is online does not mean that students cannot engage in real-world situations. In her cultural anthropology course, Rothschild-Boros has each student visit an ethnic market outside his or her own culture and write about the experience. “They have to stick out like a sore thumb. I tell them it’s like traveling without the jet lag and currency conversion. On the one hand it’s fun because they’re going someplace they have never been, but at the same time they have a list of things they have to explore within the market. They become field anthropologists. Every student’s paper will be different even if some of them visit the same market because they enter with different a priori knowledge, and they process what they see differently.”

Rothschild-Boros enjoys the different perspectives her students bring to her courses, and she deliberately creates assignments that bring out these differences because sharing different perspectives enhances critical thinking and also because they make the course more enjoyable for her. “My goal is to create assignments that are fun for my students and fun for me to read. It’s a win-win. The students have assignments that they find interesting and can customize and personalize to their own interests, and I get a wide variety of papers that are not all the same.”

This last point is not trivial, Rothschild-Boros says. “From the faculty perspective, you don’t want to be reading 50 answers that are all the same. The more engaged you are, the more likely you are to give feedback to your students.”

Reprinted from A Three-Pronged Approach to Improving Student Engagement, Critical Thinking, Online Classroom, (February 2012): 1, 3.