Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Supporting Student Learning In Your Course

Frustrated student on her laptop.

You’ve been dropped into an escape room with no clue how to get out. Instructions are delivered piecemeal, often in the form of mysterious riddles… 

Escape room activities have become increasingly common in secondary and post-secondary courses. They’re a great way to encourage problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaborative work. While an escape room can be a fun and exciting assignment, your course should not mimic one.  

Picture a course that lacks a logical structure or clear navigation in CarmenCanvas. It’s missing instructions for key activities and assignments. Disconnected readings and poorly labeled files are peppered throughout the course. Much like an escape room, students will expend a lot of energy trying to solve this puzzle—energy that could be applied to their learning. 

When students have guidance on how to navigate your course, approach their studies, and reflect upon their learning, they are more motivated, more deeply engaged, and more academically successful.

Background

How do you go about supporting students in your classes? Your students will be more successful if you use a logical course structure, provide transparent instructions and resources, and encourage metacognitive thinking. 

In a 2001 study, Eric Hobson found that the two most important influences on student motivation are the instructor’s attitude and the course structure (McGuire, 2015). A clearly organized course that guides students chronologically, makes material easy to find, offers multiple ways for students to demonstrate learning, and makes expectations transparent will increase students’ chances of success.  

Communicating the rationale behind your choice of content, your assignment design, and the course structure itself has been shown to improve student retention, grades, and learning outcomes (Winkelmes et al., 2016; Ou, 2018). A group of instructors at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas redesigned four assessments to make them more transparent. They found that indicating the learning outcomes, the skills students would use, the steps they should follow, and the grading criteria increased students’ motivation to complete assignments (Winkelmes et al., 2015). Notably, they also discovered this increased clarity was particularly beneficial to underserved students. 

It is especially critical to provide intentional support to students in online courses. When teaching in person, you probably guide students throughout each class period. You may tie up loose ends from the previous class at the start, introduce new material, direct in-class activities, and explain upcoming assignments at the close. All the while, students can raise their hands with questions or request clarification.  

When teaching online, however, you are less immediately available. If your Carmen course lacks explicit guidance, students will be left to “sort out” your expectations. They must email you questions and await your response. They might make incorrect assumptions about assignments that lead to poor quality submissions. They may fail to see the purpose of the course material and become disengaged. 

Metacognition

In 2001, Bloom’s Taxonomy was revised to include a new category for metacognitive knowledge, or awareness of one’s cognition and the ability to self-monitor, self-regulate, and self-control (Krathwohl, 2002). The inclusion of this new category followed decades of research demonstrating that learning about the way we learn positively impacts academic performance. Evidence shows that the use of metacognitive techniques in test preparation and study strategies results in increased exam scores, a more positive attitude toward learning, and the ability to transfer information to new contexts (Vrugt & Oort, 2008; Chen et al., 2017; Scharf et al., 2017). 

Metacognition encompasses the ability to self-monitor, self-regulate, and self-control. What exactly do we mean by these overlapping terms? 

Self-monitoring refers to our awareness of learning as the learning occurs. For example, you may ask students to assess their comprehension of material, reflect on the learning strategies they’re using, and consider how they’re performing on tasks. Self-regulation and self-control are related processes that stem from self-monitoring. They consist of taking “desires, beliefs, thoughts, and goals” and transforming them into action (Sodian & Frith, 2008). In other words, we check in on our learning and adjust our approach based on what is or is not working. For example, students might realize they need to reread a passage, approach a problem from a different angle, try a new study strategy, or seek help from you or from their peers.  

If you diligently post study tools or host optional review sessions, you know students don’t always take advantage of available resources. But this cannot be chalked up to simple disinterest. If students feel overwhelmed or time-strapped, they may be hesitant to try unfamiliar approaches to learning and study.  

Self-monitoring, self-regulation, and self-control are skills that must be explicitly taught. A 2017 study found that students who strategized about which resources they would use to study made more effective use of those resources (Chen et al., 2017). The researchers created an intervention tool that prompted students to consider how they could effectively use the resources available to them. The students who engaged with this tool scored one-third of a letter grade higher than students who did not. 

In Practice

As is evident from these student testimonials, the time you put into developing support resources will be worth your while. 

Below are simple strategies to help you apply what we’ve learned from research to better support your students’ success. Step out of your instructor role and think from a student’s perspective. What resources would be useful in navigating your course content and activities? 

Organize Your Course  

First and foremost, structure your Carmen course so that students are guided chronologically through the content. Organize your modules into weekly chunks to help them visualize the course schedule, plan their time accordingly, and stay on track. Simplify the navigation—limit the need to click on various tabs by making all assignments, quizzes, discussions, and files visible on the main Modules page.
 

Learn more about creating a student-friendly course in Carmen Common Sense: Basic Best Practices

UX Tip

Peer Support 

Consider setting up optional Carmen study groups or discussions so students can support each other’s learning as well. Encourage them to share research and study strategies, link helpful resources, or conduct review sessions.  

Provide Ancillary Resources 

Provide students with the resources and guidance needed to complete all course activities. Students who are unsure how to use a library database, for example, will be unable to write a research paper. Students unfamiliar with CarmenZoom will have difficulty attending synchronous sessions. Don’t assume that even upper-level students have been taught these skills previously—or will remember them if they have. Support materials that help students gain or recall ancillary skills related to writing, research, and technology tools will result in better achievement of learning goals. 

Be Transparent 

Include rationale and context before beginning a new unit or module, and whenever you introduce readings, materials, and learning activities. This supports students to understand how the various pieces of your course fit together and tie back to key learning outcomes.  

Make every assignment’s purpose, learning outcomes, and grading criteria explicit. Be clear in all instructions and prompts. You may also bring students in on the design of new assignments or rubrics to make learning a more democratic process. 

Read more about transparent assignments in Designing Assessments of Student Learning. 

UX Tip

Online Instructor Presence 

When teaching online, you should still be present and available to students. Provide introductory context for new content via short videos or written explanations on your module overview pages. Share informal reminders and updates, like those that occur at the very beginning or end of a face-to-face class meeting, using weekly Carmen announcements or emails. Read more about Online Instructor Presence

Instructor sitting with students.

Give Feedback 

Students will find it difficult to adapt their learning strategies if they don’t know where or why they’re struggling. Give regular substantive feedback that acknowledges student achievement and offers guidance on how to improve. This can spur metacognitive thinking, build rapport, and bolster student motivation throughout the semester.  

Collect Feedback  

Gathering input from students about their course experience will also help them reflect on their learning. Share surveys at strategic moments in the semester to solicit student feedback about the course organization, what is going well or not well, what concepts or material they find confusing, and what resources might better support them. You may also incorporate survey questions about accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity to ensure students are having an equitable experience in your course.  

 

METACOGNITION 

The following are specific strategies you can use to facilitate metacognition before, during, and after learning activities. 

Use Pre-Assessments 

Deliver pre-assessments before new modules, materials, or activities to help students gauge what they know about a topic and what they still need to learn. Ask open-ended questions about their knowledge of key concepts or terms, or present multiple-choice questions similar to those on a future quiz. Leverage these assessments to help students select the strategies and resources they will use for reading and study, and to identify which content areas will require the most support from you. 

Female student reading a book

Encourage Active Reading 

Support students to think explicitly about their comprehension during learning activities, as they self-monitor and self-regulate. Active reading is a process in which students intentionally engage with material, rather than passively receiving information and hoping it will stick. Ask students to: 

  • Respond to prereading questions 

  • Annotate a selection to pull out main ideas and supporting arguments  

  • Flag unfamiliar concepts or terms to look up 

  • Summarize and reflect upon the reading once finished  

This process can also be used with multimedia sources, including videos, audio lectures, and presentations.  

Include Reflections or Post-Assessments

Guide students to reflect upon their learning after you deliver instruction, finish a module, or complete an assessment. Build a final reflection or self-evaluation into assignments, ask students to keep a journal, or use portfolios for monitoring progress over time. Feedback surveys can double as reflective exercises by encouraging students to share thoughts about their learning process and study habits with you. 

OWNERSHIP OF LEARNING 

Ownership of learning allows students to have agency in their education and to use approaches to learning that best align to their interests and future goals.  

Providing students opportunities to direct their learning can increase motivation. You might ask them to: 

  • Choose topics of interest for assignments. Present multiple options or allow students to identify their topics independently. Students will be more motivated to complete papers, presentations, and projects when they have a personal investment in the subject matter. 

  • Select the medium for assignments. You can also impart agency by allowing students to determine the form their work will take. Options range from traditional papers and presentations to creative possibilities, such as videos, websites, podcasts, and graphic novels. Multimedia assignments provide a chance for students to display unique skills in formats that may be more applicable to their future career goals. These projects can include a reflection that requires students to consider how the medium helped them explore their topic or make a point. 

  • Facilitate student-led discussions. Moderating discussions in class or in Carmen allows students to lead shared discourse, idea generation, and knowledge-building with their peers. Ask them to develop discussion questions, guide the conversation, and respond to fellow students.  

Summary

You play a central role in supporting your students’ success. Remember to provide clear guidance and helpful resources and to engage students in metacognitive thinking about their learning. 

  • Set up a logical and navigable course structure 

  • Provide ancillary resources for completing course activities, such as  conducting research or using technology tools 

  • Use transparency when explaining course material, activities, and assignments 

  • Give regular feedback on progress, and collect student feedback as well  

  • Include pre-assessments to help students reflect on what they know and need to learn 

  • Use active reading to help students engage intentionally with course material and monitor their understanding 

  • Incorporate reflections and post-assessments to help students evaluate their performance, study habits, and areas for improvement 

  • Give students ownership of their learning by allowing them to choose assignment topics or formats and to lead class discussions 

References

  • Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science, 28(6), 774-85. 
  • Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212-18. 
  • Ou, J. (2018). Board 75: Work in Progress: A Study of Transparent Assignments and Their Impact on Students in an Introductory Circuit Course. Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Salt Lake City, Utah. https://peer.asee.org/30100 
  • Scharf, L., Draeger, J., Verpoorten, D., Devlin, M., Dvorakova, L. S., Lodge, J. M., & Smith, S. (2017). Exploring metacognition as support for learning transfer. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 5(1). 
  • Sodian, B., & Frith, U. (2008). Metacognition, theory of mind, and self-control: The relevance of high-level cognitive processes in development, neuroscience, and education. Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 2(3), 111-13. 
  • Vrugt, A., & Oort, F. J. (2008). Metacognition, achievement goals, study strategies, and academic achievement: Pathways to achievement. Metacognition and Learning, 3, 123-46. 
  • Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Harriss-Weavil, K. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2). 
  • Winkelmes, M., Copeland, D. E., Jorgensen, E., Sloat, A., Pizor, P., Johnson, K., Jalene, S. Benefits (some unexpected) of transparently designed assignments. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 24(4), 4-6.