Online Technology Forces Us to Get in the River with Students; But It’s Worth It

Two female college students working with a professor with a computer

Q. Please tell me about your courses and how you structure them.

Scott: I teach two very different kinds of courses that use MasteringTM–an online homework, tutorial, and assessment tool–and take advantage of its online data. In Astronomy, I teach general education (GE) classes with no pre-requisites, typically taken by students who need just one or two science classes for an associate’s degree or transfer to university in a non-science field. I also teach Physics; I teach calculus-based classes for very serious engineering and science majors, all of whom are hoping to head towards a university in the next one to two years. Most are in their second or third year of school, with much stronger study skills than the GE astronomy students.

Q. How did you decide to implement online educational technology and use progress data to improve learning?

Scott: Of course the online systems allow for 24/7 access, and instantaneous feedback in homework and assessments, and even more adaptability to customize learning to particular students’ needs. As the technology freed me from grading 50+ papers per class a week, I could put that time into improving how I taught, and expanding the resources I could deploy to help students learn. I learned very quickly with my early online courses that investing in online tools helped all of my students learn, in on-campus classes as well as online, whether they were already coming to campus and attending lectures or not. I still believe that is true today; students can see animations of concepts and interact with simulations that far outstrip the ability of a static, two-dimensional textbook in portraying how the universe works. The array available today, of different types of assessments, pre-lecture help, video clips, tutorials, and more is incredible – and growing every year.

Q. What are the most critical aspects in the data you want to find? How do you change what you are doing from what you see in the data

Scott: In those majors-level physics classes, I want to look at everything – how students do on certain types of problems, how long they spend, how their homework scores correlate with in-class exams, or with intentional group activities in lab vs. solo or ad-hoc efforts. Most critical for me tactically is using the available data *this semester* to help these students succeed on the largest measures of their success – the exams, which constitute 50% of their overall grade. Equally critical in the longer run strategically is using the data over time to improve success by amending problems, adding value, heading off misconceptions, and in general learning what students don’t know so that I might teach them even more successfully in the next class.Physics students using Mastering Physics online program

I use available data from pre-lecture and post-chapter homework assignments to change how I lecture the very day those assignments are due, mining the diagnostics for most-often-missed problems, common errors, obvious misconceptions, and methods students might use to understand and solve future problems more quickly, completely, and intuitively. While I still have a lecture outline ready to go, I change it on the fly to incorporate what the data tells me about where students might need to go.

Q. How do you improve student learning by using data? 

Long term, the data allows me to amend assignments, and improve curricula from semester to semester, identifying concepts that students need more practice on, or questions that need clarification. Having that data available 24/7 is a huge advantage to me, so that I might frame an inquiry and act on it when the idea strikes me. I love looking at the data in the middle of summer, and asking, “OK, what will I do next year to do even better?”

But that long-term improvement in learning is really possible with anyone who is curious about their teaching, for any type of assignment or assessment – not just online. I believe short-term improvements in student learning offered by mining the online data are even more crucial.

In physics, the diagnostic data from online assignments helps me to focus on what students really don’t know, rather than what I thought they didn’t know. And it helps me gauge *why* they don’t know it, through the mistakes that are captured, so that I can address the errors. Student learning clearly has improved because of this improved focus on my end, as measured by some of the common assessments I’ve used like the Force Concept Inventory or Mechanics Baseline Test in physics.

In astronomy, the diagnostic data helps me to encourage students to learn, and learn how to use resources to their advantage. Given that these students may not take another science class in the rest of their collegiate careers, I think it hugely important that they leave the class empowered by their ability to learn something scientific, rather than leave convinced that science is hard, unintelligible, suited only for the geeks of “Big Bang Theory,” and offers little for them in their future lives.

But in both classes, using data offers me another enormous tactical advantage with my current students – perhaps even more important than the benefits mentioned above. By showing students I’m learning from them, in real time, and showing them what I’ve learned and how I’m adapting, I’m modeling the process of learning (and the processes of science, too… ) To be successful in their world will demand they keep learning, at an even faster pace than is required today. I can show them all of us can learn constantly if we look for the data, analyze it, and use it. Even old professors…

Q. How is online educational technology changing your perspective about your students? 

Scott: I’m continuing to learn about my students through their work, in real time, and continuing to adapt to what they are telling me, through that work, about what they still need to learn. Adopting – and adapting to – online technology forces us to get in the river with the students. We are all carried downstream, into their future and ours. The instant I think I’ve got things sussed out – that I have my finger spot on my students’ collective pulse for a concept or a class – is a signal that I need to check that assumption, and I can do that with the data. Yes, paddling down that river alongside them, bobbing up and down at times in whitewater, is more work than sitting on the bank, but it is inherently much more fun, too.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Scott: Yes. Despite my enjoyment of and commitment to using online technology to enhance my teaching, I always share with my colleagues and students that, “Technology doesn’t teach – we do.” By that I mean incorporating the technology into our teaching doesn’t necessarily make us better teachers – we need to use the data, to be sure. But teaching is also an art form of sorts, and an interaction between us and our students as humans – not bits. A two-dimensional computer monitor, even with a captivating simulation or YouTube clip, is still less than a real 3-D person. And while there are tons of equations in physics and astronomy that I can teach my students, there isn’t an equation that I’ve found (yet) that guarantees the next student in my next class will learn if I deploy X, Y, and Z at particular times in particular ways. Until I get to know them, and they me, the best I can do is rely on my intuition and experience, not the computer. It’s a tool – a fabulous one – but still a tool.


If you want to learn more about analyzing data using Mastering tools, watch the recorded webinar presented by Scott Hildreth.


About Scott Hildreth
Scott Hildreth, Ph.D.

Scott Hildreth

Scott Hildreth is the program lead professor of physics and astronomy at Chabot College in Hayward, California, where he has been teaching for more than 26 years. He has used both Mastering Physics and Mastering Astronomy for more than 10 years, including Calculus Physics for Scientists & Engineers, Modern Physics, College Physics, Physical Science for Teachers, and Introductory Astronomy courses about the Solar System and Stars & Galaxies.

In his astronomy classes, Scott has found the student retention rate is more than 10% higher using the online tutorials and Mastering platform than it was 10 years ago. In his first-semester calculus-based physics classes, students have shown a consistently higher normalized gain, measured by the FCI pre/post test, than in prior semesters and in other classes where Mastering Physics was not used. Second-semester E&M courses have shown a similar gain measured by the BEMA pre/post test  And while there are surely other factors at play here, he believes the system has helped retain students who find the textbook too difficult to handle. At least at the community college level in California, far more students are entering our classes unable to read our traditional textbooks effectively – no matter how well they are written or how friendly their layout. But these same students have shown they can learn from the tutorials and online media. When class after class rank Mastering’s tutorials and online learning questions as better than his lectures, better than traditional homework, and better than the books in helping students understand the material more effectively, Scott is convinced that they are substantial, important assets worth our time and consideration as teachers.