What did we learn from 10 years of improving our nutrition courses?

Young female college student looking down at a desk

On a recent visit to our local farmer’s market, I ran into a student I had in class about ten years ago. During our conversation, we discussed the class she had taken from me and I realized how much that class had changed over the years. For me, teaching is a process, an on-going effort to improve student learning. Ten years ago, one of the biggest areas that I wanted to improve upon was to increase access to our introductory nutrition course, so, I began teaching nutrition in a hybrid format in 1998. Students had a textbook, some paper/pencil assignments, used VHS tapes for lectures, and came to class a few times during the semester to take exams.

Although the class format was popular, we had a fairly low success rate, and after a couple years, it was clear that we needed to improve our class structure. We began using various online course support methods, often using publisher-developed materials, including MasteringNutrition. We’ve been refining, revising and changing this format for over a decade now. That hybrid format has grown into a course which uses a Learning Management System (LMS) with robust online activities, discussion, and small video lectures. Students still come to class a few times during the semester to participate in activities to support learning and for exams.

Male and female college students talkingAs we worked on refining this hybrid format we began to see more and more ways to integrate online learning activities into our traditional format course to support student learning. By providing students with online activities and quizzes, we could support and expand what we were teaching in the traditional face-to-face lectures. As students in our traditional courses use more online support material, their feedback helps us adjust our lectures and better assess how we should spend our lecture time.

In both traditional and hybrid formats we’ve learned a few things:

  • Students like flexibility. Students appreciate having 24/7 access. I have many students who work in the medical field and are taking nutrition as a prerequisite for another course or program. Many of these students work 12-hour shifts and access materials at midnight. On the other side, I have students who are parents and many of them will get up and do class work before the rest of the family wakes up.
  • Some students work together. Occasionally work is assigned as a class project, but often I’m not aware that students are working together in groups. Sometimes students exchange emails and work online together; other times students get together to do the work. I’ve been at my college library and have seen small groups of students working on online activities together. When we have anything (activities, assignments, quizzes, or exams) online, we have to assume that students are working together, unless it is a proctored situation. At the same time, we don’t want to place a student who is working alone at a disadvantage. Some students select hybrid classes because they find they learn science-based material (this nutrition is a science-based course) better by themselves.
  • Students like instant feedback. Students like to know when they understand the material and when they do not. When they get a question correct they appreciate knowing that almost instantly. When they get a question wrong, they want some feedback about why it is wrong or where to look to get the correct answer.
  • Students want to know there is a real teacher online. I use regular announcements and discussion board comments so students know I’m actively participating in the class. The students are more engaged when I’m engaged. For example, for the last several semesters I’ve had an online discussion question that asks students to post a meal that meets certain guidelines. Usually I make a point of responding to each student’s initial meal post, and I then engage in some back and forth between the student, myself, and other students. However, last spring, I was extremely busy and only responded to a few students’ meal posts. The amount of discussion significantly decreased. I found students only posted the minimum required to meet the assignment guidelines.

I think of teaching as being lifelong, in the same manner as we as individuals are “Always Learning.” In addition to maintaining my knowledge base, the teaching process requires me to expand and adapt my teaching methods in many ways. I was pleased to have participated in the creation of a case study. The exercise gave me a lot of data and feedback that I can use to continue to improve my course. Read the full case study to learn more about the course results and outcomes using MasteringNutrition for online activities, homework, and quizzes.


About the Author

Milli Owens is a professor of nutrition at College of the Sequoias, which is located in an agricultural area of central California.  In addition to teaching, she is the chair of the Consumer Family Studies division at the college and has an interest in curriculum development. As a Registered Dietitian, Milli worked in private industry before teaching and continues consulting  occasionally.  She considers herself a lifelong learner and tries to pass the fun of learning on to her students.