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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Best Way to Learn in an Online Course

A well-designed online course will guide you through the course content, and will also guide you in the best way to learn the material and to achieve desired learning outcomes. The course will bring together cognitive and behavioral approaches. In addition, self-regulation (motivation, goal-setting, etc) will be incorporated in a seamless way so that you're learning how to manage time, how to practice for exams, and how to plan for achieving outcomes.

There is quite a bit of support for an integrated learning approach. In 1996, H. Tait and N. J. Entwistle published the results of a study that revealed very useful connections between behavioral, cognitive, and emotional strategies. They concluded that the most effective learning strategies were ones that reinforced each other in a seamless, integrative manner. These insights are very useful for designers, instructors, and administrators who can develop and guide courses in ways that can naturally incorporate the acquisition of learning strategies.

In fact, a well-designed online or hybrid course can (and probably should) teach learning strategies as well as the course content. Needless to say, achieving learning outcomes requires one to have at least some facility with multiple learning strategies, particularly when learning styles differ. Further, external factors such as lack of access and confusion can create anxiety, frustration, or confusion and can act as barriers to persistence.

Cognitive Learning Strategies

Rehearsal is not simply a matter of repetition. It involves organizing information so that it is easy to retrieve. In a traditional setting, students often copy notes, or recopy the content. Studies have suggested that this is not particularly effective at achieving deep learning, but it does help students in classification and identification of content.

In an online environment, "rehearsal" is an automatic, and is often built into navigation tools, and reinforced by using color, typography, and design. Learning activities can also ask students to type categories and to rehearse knowledge. This approach is most effective when it requires students to make connections or to classify and organize content.

One effective to rehearse knowledge is to take practice tests and quizzes (when available). Another is to share information in the discussion board.

Organizing involves placing information into a form that allows you to retrieve information. This may involve creating key topics and issues, and to build cognitive structures that allow classification, grouping, and inter-relation. It requires synthesis, evaluation, and higher-level activities which can lead to deeper learning.

In an online environment, if you are required to engage in an instructional activity that requires both rehearsal and organization, you will be more able to be flexible in your thinking and to use the information in more than one setting or context.

You may need to describe, define, or explain a topic. You are elaborating. This procedure is deeply constructivist in its epistemological underpinnings, which is to say that it requires students to not only repeat, restate, classify, organize, it requires you to make connections between seemingly unrelated chunks of information. It may also require making connections between course content and the your own knowledge or experience.

An online course can require you to write essays, or provide brief analyses that require the learner to engage in elaboration. To be most effective, a set of procedures or "guiding questions" can provide the scaffolding needed. Modeling elaboration by providing examples of "situated learning" -- learning that places the content within a certain context and asks the student to transform it -- can lead to the acquisition of effective learning strategies.

Behavioral Learning Strategies

1---Interpersonal help-seeking
In a classroom setting or traditional face-to-face environment, in-class group work or study groups outside the class provide an easy way to seek help.

In an online course you may wish to find answers to questions by using the discussion board, asking fellow students, posting to a wiki, doing research, finding an online tutor, or going to a virtual world or serious game for simulation(s).

2---Interaction / social reinforcement
Interactivity in a face-to-face setting is often most effective when a facilitator moderates discussions and models the behavior that is deemed desirable.

In the online environment, chat and discussion areas can be very effective, particularly if there are multimedia aspects -- video and audio -- that are easily accessed.

Blogs, instant message, informal webinars, collaborative projects and games can be ways of modeling positive interaction, and one can "reality check" one's ideas and/or thoughts. One of the most effective methods of achieving social reinforcement in an online environment is to ask students to post a project or paper in order to allow others to see what they are doing and to comment.

Establishing a group and putting together a way to communicate with online study buddies can be a very nice and effective approach, as well. Instant messaging can work, as well as other approaches.

3---Seeking help from written material
This strategy involves procedures for obtaining information from books, digital resources, and other items. Key strategies involve teaching how to narrow a search, how to recognize the correct information once it has been retrieved, and how to apply it in an appropriate manner.
The online environment offers many opportunities to coach students on how to retrieve and use information. This can range from the use of a virtual library, or the use of learning objects.

Learning objects may be informal as well as formal. For example, you may find a number of useful videos posted in YouTube or on Google Video, or in free services such as Neulio. You may also find quizzes and interactive games, or informal assessments in or learnhub.

In fact, this is one of the best places for learning objects. Small, highly granular objects -- interactive maps, online dictionaries, diagrams, guides and flowcharts -- can be quite helpful. They can also link with cognitive strategies that involve making connections, organizing, and repeating.

4---Practical application
These procedures ask you to try things in the real world. Effective learning strategies can be modeled and transferred by using simulations, games, and virtual worlds.

Self-Regulation Strategies

1---Time management
Using the calendar function can be very helpful for organizing and planning your time. You may also wish to analyze the tasks and match the tasks to the chunks of time you have available.
Timed deadlines, and disabling/disabling access to Instant Messanger, chat, Skype, internet, and games may help.

2---Emotional control (anxiety and concentration)
Effective learning strategies in this area include procedures for minimizing and reducing anxiety, lack of concentration, and frustration.

Because of the nature of technology, the online environment can, at times, create anxiety and frustration, particularly when there are technical difficulties and access is interrupted. Poor design and navigation can create anxiety, while good design, navigation, support, and instructional activities can help the learner gain an enhanced sense of self-efficacy and self concept.

Keep in mind that the online environment (including the interface, the nature of navigation, the kinds of features), will always be in flux. This is even more the case in the Web 2.0 environment, which incorporates a great number of mashups and other informal integrated web applications. To know how is to feel confident. On way to keep emotionally calm is to try to create your own integrated web applications, or to build your own sites in myspace, facebook, linkedin, or other social networking areas.

Part of the face-to-face instructional environment includes procedures to motivate individuals who are not interested in the material, or who do not like the instructional environment.
Good instructional design can be very effective in motivating you, or teaching yourself how to motivate yourself by adding interest, making connections and points of reference to your lives, establishing relevance, and instilling a sense of the usefulness and even urgency in mastering the topic.

A course that helps you connect with other people and to get the information you need can be very useful. Having access to social networking can be good in creating study buddies, sharing helpful tips and hints, and setting up mentoring. Facebook,, myspace,, and a number of sims in virtual worlds (Second Life,, encourage social networking in a productive, learning outcomes-oriented way. For example, you may find a tutor for Spanish in Second Life or through ning.

4---Comprehension monitoring
In the traditional environment, these refer to procedures that assess the degree to which learning objectives have been attained, and they help the instructor identify where gaps in learning exist.

In the online environment, the successful student has methods of testing, tracking, and checking his or her comprehension of the content and mastery of learning objectives. This often takes the form of e-mailing the instructor to obtain feedback. However, it can also be automated, and students can take online quizzes and/or engage in activities that help them assess whether or not they are on track. You may also take advantage so social networks for feedback and monitoring.

Planning an online course so that it helps guide you and your fellow students in the acquisition of effective learning strategies is a multi-pronged endeavor.

It requires a thorough understanding of a) your fellow students, their abilities, backgrounds, language, contexts, beliefs, core values, and reasons for taking the course; b) the technological environment, which includes access, hardware, variability of access, complexity of interface, etc.; c) the kinds of learning objectives that the course of study will generally involve; d) the instructors, their backgrounds and technical ability, their understanding of effective mentoring, and their willingness to adapt to ever-changing technological requirements.

Finally, be sure to employ Web 2.0 tools, tips, and strategies for access to people and resources. Social networking, collaborative information building, and informal learning tools (mashups, etc.) are constantly evolving and can help you.

Useful Resources
Ackerman, P. L., Sternberg, R. J., and Glaser, R. (Eds.) (1989). Learning and individual differences. New York : Freeman.

Caverly, D. C., and Orlando, V. P. (1991). Textbook Study Strategies. In R. F. Flippo and D. C. Caverly (Eds.), Teaching reading and study strategies at the college level. (pp. 86-155). Newark , DE : International Reading Association.

Driskell, J. E., Copper, C., and Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 805-814.

Schmeck, R. R. (Ed.) (1988). Learning strategies and learning styles. New York : Plenum Press.
Tait, H. and Entwistle, N. J. (1996). "Identifying students at risk through ineefcitve study strategies", Higher Education 31, 97-116.

Weinstein, C. E., & Mayer, R. E. (1986). The teaching of learning strategies. In M. C. Wittock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3 rd ed. Pp 315-327). New York , Macmillan.

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