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Teaching & Learning

Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative Provides Guidance on Supporting Self-Directed Learning in Online STEM Courses

Research & Reports
June 29, 2023

Many college students experienced online learning for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic as institutions shifted to remote teaching out of necessity. Several semesters later, students who derived benefits from that initial engagement with online learning are now looking for ongoing opportunities to engage with at least some of their coursework through this modality. 

Yet studies have demonstrated that online learning — particularly the types that are asynchronous, self-paced, and devoid of faculty-student interaction — puts higher demands on students to manage their own learning and results in lower pass rates. These challenges are particularly pronounced in STEM courses. In fact, some of the gains in recent years to make STEM programs more inclusive of Black and Hispanic students have been eroded by online modalities, which have been shown to increase feelings of isolation and exclusion and contribute to what many minoritized students in the STEM fields experience as “imposter syndrome.” 

The Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative, a partnership of SRI Education, the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Achieving the Dream, and nine broad-access colleges and universities, is investigating how to support STEM faculty in helping their students develop the skills needed for successful completion of online courses and has published its findings in its first report, “Teaching and Designing Online STEM Courses to Support Self-Directed Learning Skills.” 

Authored by SRI Education researchers Louise Yarnall, senior research social scientist; Rebecca Griffiths, principal investigator and co-director of the Digital Learning and Technology Policy program; and Hannah Cheever, technical assistance provider, the report defines self-directed learning as “a collection of emotions, beliefs, attitudinal mindsets, and cognitive or behavioral processes used to manage learning tasks.” In concept, the researchers write, “when instructors create inclusive conditions that feature the use of instructional supports targeting self-directed learning,” results include enhanced academic performance and more successful career outcomes.  

The report not only provides faculty with guidance around building students’ self-directed learning mindsets and skills but also reviews theory and scientific evidence on teaching strategies that both encourage self-directed learning and lend themselves to integration into STEM courses. It also includes actionable frameworks for guiding the design of online STEM courses that promote self-directed learning. 

The report groups the processes composing self-directed learning into three categories: motivation; metacognition, which relates to one’s “game plan” for learning tasks; and applied learning. The authors note the intertwining nature of these three process types and how they mutually reinforce one another.  

The natural attitudes that arise when students feel unprepared for a college STEM class, feel they don’t belong, or question the course’s value in their lives, Yarnall says, can negatively affect motivation, which she deems the “core engine of school success.” By acknowledging those attitudes and framing the learning experience in a positive way, STEM faculty can enhance students’ drive. But assuaging tensions and rousing inspiration are not the only way to increase student motivation. By incorporating course activities that encourage the metacognition processes involved when students develop a game plan for their studies, she explains, faculty can give a boost to student motivation as well: “As a side motivational benefit, having a game plan helps students maintain positive momentum because, when challenges arise, they feel prepared rather than caught off guard.” 

Finally, the development of applied learning processes, which help students be proactive and resourceful toward their studies, improve both the motivational and metacognitive processes. “When a student has the experience of successfully trouble shooting a learning challenge, asking the right question of the right person, and getting the right answer, it’s empowering motivationally, and it also may offer some new ideas for their game planning,” Yarnall remarked, underscoring the cyclical nature of the three types of processes. 

In addition to defining each category and noting their mutually beneficial relationship to one another, the authors also identify component processes within each of the three categories, and, based on an extensive review of the literature and recent empirical studies, they suggest instructional strategies that they believe would support their development in online STEM courses. “We looked for strategies that showed significant positive impacts on postsecondary student outcomes — academic outcomes as well as self-reported use of self-directed learning skills — in STEM courses in controlled studies,” shared Cheever. “In some cases, we adapted these strategies for delivery in online courses.” 

Motivational Processes

Metacognitive Processes

Applied Learning Processes

  • Build on students’ beliefs about their own agency and belonging to fuel behavior.  

(Minoritized students who may have developed negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities, particularly in STEM courses, are more apt to avoid academic challenges or to give up on their studies.) 

  • Help students manage and plan their learning by laying out the specific actions that will aid them in the learning process and to adjust to the demands of an assignment. 
  • Help students take ownership for meeting learning goals. 

(Research shows that engaging in applied learning early in their college journey promotes academic success and facilitates independent learning.)

Component Processes

Component Processes

Component Processes

Help students to:

  • Embrace a growth mindset to develop and maintain a sense of self-efficacy
  • Build and maintain a personal sense of belonging
  • Assess and identify the personal value of a course
Help students to:

  • Identify learning needs based on reflection on past performance
  • Set goals and monitor progress toward them
  • Plan time for studying
  • Select learning strategies and adjust them as needed
  • Reflect on learning progress and performance
Help students to:

  • Set up the study environment and enact time management plans
  • Identify additional resources to support learning and obtain help
  • Use learning strategies such as spacing practice, self-quizzing, note-taking, and problem-solving heuristics

Instructional Strategies

Instructional Strategies

Instructional Strategies

Include the following:

  • Providing students with video-based or written testimonials from prior students of similar backgrounds about their learning journeys, acknowledging early challenges 
  • Presenting an online module about how intelligence is not fixed and can be enhanced through hard work 
  • Asking students to assess a practical translation of a skill or concept from class to their personal lives 
  • Offering students an online peer network to combat feelings of isolation 
  • Using a flipped learning environment that requires students to grow as online learners by using internet sources 
Include the following:

  • Providing an online lesson explaining metacognitive processes  
  • Asking students to complete a plan that notes past academic challenges and specifies ways to overcome them 
  • Requiring students to go to an online link to set a time to watch daily lectures 
  • Providing formative assessments and a subsequent peer support activity 
  • Providing online learning logs 
  • Periodically prompting students to describe goals, needs for help, and time management and to reflect on their performance 
  • Providing individualized feedback 
Include the following:

  • Giving students online lessons that explain how to find help, practice spaced memorization, self-quiz, and take notes 
  • Including support for getting help, such as from online peer tutors  
  • Structuring online environments that are supportive of note-taking and self-quizzing 

Jon Iuzzini, ATD’s director of Teaching & Learning, expressed his desire to acquaint ATD Network colleges with the strategies identified by the Collaborative. “We are excited to support the Postsecondary Collaborative’s capacity-building efforts,” he stated. “Our work in partnership with colleges across the ATD network reinforces the essential role of full-time and part-time faculty in advancing equity in student success, and we look forward to helping our colleges leverage the Collaborative’s findings around self-directed learning. In particular, we hope to identify ways colleges can provide educators the time and space they need to learn about and implement these strategies with fidelity.” 

The Collaborative is now looking to its college and university partners to more deeply inform its study of how college-level online STEM courses can produce successful outcomes. “As we partner with broad-access postsecondary institutions, we anticipate learning more about the instructional strategies and student learning supports that are most important to integrate into online STEM courses,” said Griffiths.  

The researchers are currently conducting two ongoing studies to this end: one that examines how institutional policies and practices can support student success, investigates institutional efforts to strengthen students’ self-directed learning skills, and explores institutional contexts around foundational STEM courses and another to test and refine targeted, technology-enabled instructional strategies to strengthen self-directed learning mindsets and skills in such courses. Based on findings from these studies, they intend to create and pilot a comprehensive instructional model that includes strategies to promote self-directed learning mindsets, including motivational, metacognitive, and applied learning processes. 

Read the full report 

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