Giving Students an Individualized Experience in Online Learning: Staying Connected while Disconnected

Online cloud image made up of student collage for online community

“No combination of words can put together the feeling of relief, comfort and gratitude I have towards your course and your fantastic TAs.” –Student comment, Spring 2020

As universities across the country begin to make the difficult decision to continue with online learning in the fall semester, faculty will again be asked to adapt their classes to an online format. During this past spring semester, we adapted our individualized instruction class for introductory biology to an online format with measured trepidation. By the end of the semester, we were excited to hear reports from students that the transition to online learning was not only successful, but enjoyable. We believe the unique contours of our course’s individualized instruction model set us up for success and we would like to share some thoughts on how other instructors can incorporate aspects of individualized instruction into their online courses to increase student engagement.

Making Content Manageable

“I never really learned that much from lectures and being able to go at my own pace has fit so well with my learning style.” –Student comment, Spring 2020

In an individualized instruction model, students have the freedom to work through course material at their own pace while being provided a safety net of support from course staff to shepherd them through the course. In our class, we divide the content into 10 units which are each assessed about one week apart. Breaking the material down into these manageable chunks is important (especially so amid COVID-19) in keeping students from becoming overwhelmed with the content.

For each unit, we provide our students with a list of concepts and objectives we expect them to master by the end of their study on the unit. To help our students master these concepts and objectives, they take advantage of textbook readings, online supplemental materials, mini-lecture videos produced by the course staff, and tutoring sessions (both one-on-one and with larger groups). By replacing the traditional lecture with these myriad forms of content delivery and review, our students were engaged throughout the online portion of our course and by some measures, their content mastery was higher than in previous semesters where we were in-person.

Be Available, Be Flexible

“I loved the remote instruction format and the flexibility of the course.” –Student comment, Spring 2020

One of the most important aspects of any individualized instruction model is scheduling. In our course, students adhere to a “deadline schedule” to ensure they continue progressing through the course. For each unit of material, students have a “deadline” by which they need to complete the unit. In a normal semester, if students don’t complete the unit by the deadline, they still have to finish the material, but incur a small grade penalty. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, we chose to provide flexibility on deadlines and not penalize students for completing units past their deadline. At first we were concerned this would lead to swathes of students falling behind on the material, but we felt it was a necessary move to accommodate our students. The students were grateful for our flexibility, and we were surprised to discover that not only did students continue to complete the units in a timely manner, but by the end of the semester there were fewer students with outstanding material than in previous on-campus semesters.

Another important aspect of scheduling is finding time for students to interact with course staff to discuss material. We provided three such outlets: (1) regularly scheduled virtual office hours, (2) weekly review session focused on content from specific units, and (3) student-scheduled individual (or small group) tutoring sessions with the course staff. Surprisingly, hardly anyone took advantage of the virtual office hours. There was a small but dedicated group of students who regularly attended the weekly review sessions (and an unknown number who accessed video recordings of these sessions afterwards. By far, students preferred scheduling individual (or small group) meetings with course staff, which speaks to the power of human interaction in our individualized instruction model. While course content can be disseminated via recordings of traditional lectures, viewing of these lectures leave students with “Zoom fatigue.”  Our small group interactions succeed in keeping students engaged, and therefore learning, throughout.

The Value of Human Interaction

“The TAs for this class are absolutely amazing. I really appreciate how this class allows you to become so close with the professor and TAs and they were such an integral part of this course.” –Student comment, Spring 2020

Assign a Point Person to Every Student

When we transitioned to online learning, we assigned every student to a course staff member as their point-of-contact. This proved to be one of the most consequential decisions in ensuring a seamless transition. Throughout the online portion of the semester, students developed relationships with their assigned instructor or teaching assistant, who provided regular contact to their students via one-on-one tutoring and guidance through the assessment process. By the end of the semester, most students identified their relationships with the course staff as their favorite part of the class. Our course is privileged with a large teaching staff and expecting all students to be able to schedule one-on-one sessions regularly with course staff may not be feasible for all. In a large class, meeting with small groups of students at a time could be a useful strategy. Personalized interactions are comforting to students and keep them more engaged, no matter how far from campus they may be.  

Suggestions for Building Community

Individualized does not mean isolated. Building a sense of community in an individualized instruction class is essential to its success. In our class, we start building a community from day one when students assign themselves to small group discussion sessions that meet during the first four weeks of the class. In these sessions, students get to know each other, get to know course staff, and begin to familiarize themselves with the resources available to them for the course. These relationships often last throughout the semester as students form study groups or actively seek out help from course instructors they interacted with early on. In an online class, these groups can meet via videoconference and students may be grouped based on time zone to ensure that students have access to a community from anywhere in the world. From one-on-one tutoring, to small group discussion sections, to whole class review sessions, community should be incorporated at every level.  

Andrew St. James is a PhD candidate at Cornell University where he serves as a graduate teaching assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Biology and was previously a graduate research and teaching fellow at the Center for Teaching Innovation.

Dr. Darlene Campbell is a senior lecturer in the Office of Undergraduate Biology at Cornell University where she has taught an individualized instruction, introductory biology course in comparative physiology for 15 years.