March 20th, 2019

Using Bridge Questions to Teach Technical Content Online

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learning assessment techniques

Courses with a great deal of technical content for application in practice such as law, business, or STEM courses are oftentimes designed in what amounts to an information delivery method. The professor provides the necessary information for students to memorize and repeat back in the course assessments.

Indeed, the online environment makes disseminating recorded lectures and written material fast and convenient, and students readily expect to be tested on the materials provided. Even in course designs with synchronous components, professors may lecture or answer questions, yet seldom observe how students are synthesizing or interacting with the course material. Moreover, delivering large amounts of content and assessing students’ recall of that content misses a central piece of a student-centered pedagogy, namely ensuring that students achieve a deep understanding of the content through opportunities to apply the technical information to practical problems.

One way to augment online course designs that would help students practice applying technical knowledge is using bridge questions. Bridge questions require students to solve a practical problem or case by applying the content of the course to a real-world problem. The questions bridge the gap between the course’s technical content and situations where the content can be applied. There are many ways to use bridge questions in online course designs, but here are two basic approaches.

First, in courses with a synchronous component, students could be given bridge questions at the outset of a module or week that they know will be the basis of the synchronous session or office hours discussion. In order to participate in “class” that week, students would have to find the answers to the questions and/or the tools to solve the problem(s) presented in the reading and/or required videos.

This approach engages students in the readings and/or videos in an active way. That is, instead of passively consuming the content, taking notes, and trying to remember everything, students are actively on the lookout for answers to their problems. It also allows professors to structure the synchronous sessions around solving problems that all the students are working on; professors would just raise the bridge questions to start class and ask students for their answers and explanations of how they arrived at their answers using the course material. Other variations might include small group work sessions before class or small group discussions in class. In any variation, the professor will be able to readily identify misunderstandings students have about the material and/or its application and intervene to help students enhance their learning and develop their expertise.

Second, in courses with a mostly asynchronous design, the same concept applies but the bridge questions would be answered as an asynchronous requirement (e.g., discussion board, Yellowdig, Office 365 collaboration, etc.). Using an asynchronous design, the discussion responses could be structured in the more traditional one-student-one-answer approach. However, students would likely be more engaged and learn much more if the professor structured the requirement as a collaborative activity with everyone working on the bridge questions together. In larger classes, the professor might consider breaking the class into smaller groups. In either case, the goal is to have students collaborate on the responses to the bridge questions and the professor would keep the discussion focused on answering the questions/solving the problems, identifying misunderstandings, and guiding students to a more expert application of the material.

In either approach, the bridge questions should be designed to facilitate students’ application of the technical content to a practical situation.  In this way, students will both master the intricacies of the content and learn the nuances of the rules by applying them to relevant fact patterns. Depending on the subject matter of the course, the model answers can be structured as recorded explanations from the professor, synchronous discussions in a class session, printed narratives and explanations, formulas leading to a precise answer, or diagrams.  In all cases, the objective is to reinforce comprehension through experience and application.

A final note on using bridge questions; the students’ independent and collaborative work on them should be graded, otherwise they may wait until others (especially the professor) solve the problems for them. In courses with synchronous components, this can be accomplished as a participation grade. In asynchronous designs, graded participation should be clearly defined activities that hold students accountable for engaging the bridge questions in meaningful ways. In any case, using bridge questions is a simple way to transform any online course from a content-focused passive learning experience to an engaging, students-centered one.

Stefan A. Perun is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University.  Edward A. Liva is the director of the Graduate Tax Program and a professor of practice at Villanova University School of Law.