Throughout 12 years of teaching at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Dr. Kathleen West noticed a growing trend among her students. Students who don’t understand why they need to learn about a topic often express a lack of interest in the course and become disengaged. And it wasn’t just in her classes. As the lead academic advisor in the psychology department, Dr. West heard this concern from colleagues who also struggled to keep their students engaged.
“I think students have always worked this way, but there is a huge trend toward verbalizing it nowadays, that they don’t want to learn it if they don’t understand why they need it” explains Dr. West. “ That’s a big challenge for some of our heavy content disciplines because, you’ll get there eventually, in your higher up classes, but there is X amount of material that [students have] to learn first or that connection piece just isn’t going to make sense. Where I struggle as a professor and I know others do too, is how can we have that [connection] happen at this lower level so that they hang with us and get to that higher level content where it’s really going to make sense to them?”
To help students understand the importance of the content and build connections early on, Dr. West looked for ways to encourage students to critically think about the material and apply it to their lives. To do this, Dr. West added an online discussion component to her class via her university’s LMS system. Encouraging students to talk about class material seemed to be improving their interest in the subject matter, but as classes grew and some moved online, maintaining LMS discussions became challenging. Dr. West felt discussion was a big part of building critical thinking and application skills in her students but needed to find a tool that allowed her students to discuss concepts, share ideas and learn the material in the most efficient way.
“[Learning] opens your mind to all kinds of new things, but you can’t learn effectively if you don’t have the right tools. On the flip side, you can learn better if you have better tools,” says Dr. West. “That’s what I am always looking for as a professor. I know the content, but [students] don’t. So what is the best way for me to communicate with them [and] get them to learn? Not just have it memorized, but to have them say, ‘I care about this material.’”
Increasing Interest in the Subject Matter
In 2016, Dr. West implemented Packback’s online discussion in her classes. Each week, she required her students to ask one question and respond to two peer questions. She found that as students discussed and thought about the material outside of class, they were more engaged and more eager to learn in class. Providing students with a platform to explore content that was of interest to them achieved her goal of getting students to care about psychology.
Not only did Packback give students a place to discuss class material, but thanks to the platform’s artificial intelligence, Dr. West was able to provide scalable feedback to further improve students’ critical thinking and application skills.
“One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about [Packback is] it’s just a simple tool [with] very little input on my part, but a maximum output on [the students’] part that gets them to make the connections, appreciate the content, internalize the content and say, ‘Yeah, this is something I want to learn,’” says Dr. West. “They help themselves through Packback to see why [psychology] is relevant, why this is applicable. They internalize the material so then they say, ‘Okay, I do like this. I do want to keep going.’ Even in my freshman classes, they’re already starting to make these connections. They’ve internalized it, so they want to learn it. That makes it easier for me as a professor. I am doing less convincing of why you should learn it and spending more time just teaching it.”
Bringing Packback into Class
To further encourage students to engage in conversations on Packback, Dr. West incorporated Packback discussions into the course. “I call it positive reinforcement learning,” explains Dr. West. “I pick out the [posts] that are super awesome and I highlight them both in Packback and on our learning management system. I say ‘This is an awesome question. It’s awesome for whatever reasons’ or ‘We don’t even know the answer to this. What would you hypothesize?’ My students have a lot of fun that way and they love it when I call them out and give them kudos. But it’s also really neat because they pick up on stuff that is really important.”
Using Packback to Prepare for Exams
Once students became invested in the content through Packback, Dr. West noticed a number of thought-provoking questions from students that covered the same topics she had for written exam questions. Dr. West saw an opportunity to use Packback to help her students prepare for exams.
“I require writing on every exam. It takes longer to grade but it’s a very important skill in our discipline,” says Dr. West. “So I encourage [the students] and say, ‘Look, you’ve got all these available questions that your [peers] have asked, see if you can answer their question with a paragraph or two in about five or ten minutes. If you can, you’ve done about what you need to do, skill-wise, for the exam. If it took you longer than five or ten minutes, answer another one and keep practicing until you’re answering them in five or ten minutes.’ What I’ve noticed in the last couple of semesters is that students are really taking advantage. They’ll email me with questions like, ‘Here’s my answer on Packback. Would this be an okay exam answer?’”
By helping students build connections through discussion, Dr. West was able to increase her students’ interest in the subject matter. Once students saw how the course content related to future studies and their lives, they took more ownership of their education by using Packback to study, ask questions about content and eventually improve on the written portion of their exams.
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