by Adam Hodges, Ph.D., Sr. Teaching & Learning Specialist
A fundamental challenge for course design is how to improve learner performance on educational outcomes. The key to doing this in online education is to maximize the mastery learning principles built into the Coursera platform.
The traditional model of education revolves around a fixed time frame with variable achievement. Take, for example, a semester-long university course that meets for 15 weeks. Over the course of that semester, instructors teach lessons and students strive to learn the material that is taught. Some students do better than others in mastering that material over the course of those 15 weeks. This is evidenced by exams that measure their performance and grades that are handed out at the end of the semester. Those grades are intended to indicate the level of mastery learners have achieved over that fixed time frame. In other words, in the traditional learning model, time is fixed and achievement is variable.
In a famous 1984 paper in Educational Researcher, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom posed what he called the “2 sigma” problem: How can group instruction methods enable students to attain the same level of achievement that can be attained under good individual or small group tutoring conditions?
Bloom termed this the “2 sigma” problem because research studies (Anania 1982, 1983; Burke 1984) showed that “the average student under tutoring was about two standard deviations [sigmas] above the average” level of achievement of students in a conventional class. Adopting mastery learning strategies in a conventional group class raised student performance by one standard deviation, or sigma. Bloom challenged educators to “find methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring.”
Bloom’s work underscores the importance of rethinking the traditional educational model where time is fixed and achievement is variable. A mastery learning approach flips those variables so that mastery is the constant while time is the variable. Some learners need more time than others to achieve mastery.
The key, though, isn’t to merely provide learners with more time to learn. The learning also needs to be structured in a way that facilitates mastery, using formative tests with feedback-corrective procedures. When done well, this approach to teaching online can approximate the type of guidance associated with tutoring.
Coursera is built for mastery learning, allowing instructors to embed practice and feedback into the learning path.
One way to turn the passive watching of video lectures into an active learning experience is to embed knowledge checks into those videos. As Brame & Perez (2017) suggest, in-video questions (IVQs) improve retention and help learners engage in self-assessment strategies important for mastery.
Another way is to include formative practice quizzes or exercises within each lesson. Coursera recommends at least one practice question for each instructional item in the course. These can be embedded within video lectures as IVQs (login required), put into practice quizzes at the end of each lesson, or a combination of the two. The idea is to intersperse practice with instruction throughout each week of the course. This keeps learners actively engaged as they test and build their mental models en route to demonstrating mastery of the material.
The effectiveness of formative practice assessments largely depends on how well they provide immediate, actionable feedback to learners. This is where online technology excels, allowing you to tailor your feedback based on how learners respond to a question–simulating the type of individualized feedback in tutoring sessions.
Coursera lets you leave option-level feedback on quizzes. Let’s say, for example, that your quiz uses a multiple choice format with five options to choose from. You may designate one of those options as the correct response and the other four options as incorrect responses. A well-designed question would include distractors based on potential misconceptions learners might have. For each of those incorrect options, you can provide elaborative feedback to explain to the learner why the response is incorrect and reinforce key ideas relevant to the learning objective. Integrating this type of practice with feedback into the learning path heads off misconceptions and supports learners as they work toward mastery.
Feedback is also important on the summative graded assessments at the end of each week of the course. Whereas the practice assessments are low-stakes formative opportunities that provide feedback explaining why a response is correct or incorrect, learners demonstrate mastery of learning objectives by passing each week’s graded assessment. Since mastery is the constant and time is the variable, learners are allowed multiple attempts on graded assessments. As you might expect, feedback is invaluable on graded assessments just like it is on practice assessments. However, the type of feedback differs slightly.
On graded assessments, learners may retake the quiz or exercise more than once. So your feedback should point learners to relevant instructional items that they should review and study before returning to retake the assessment. This type of feedback supports the learner without revealing the correct answer on a graded assessment that they may need to retake.
Mastery learning is predicated upon relevant practice with actionable feedback. A well-designed course will include both formative (practice) and summative (graded) assessments with elaborative feedback that supports learners as they work to demonstrate mastery of clearly defined learning objectives. Coursera has been built to facilitate mastery learning, allowing you to create effective online learning experiences that help answer Bloom’s “2 sigma” problem.36