The balance between flexibility and structure for student learning - Key takeaways from LearnSci Webcasts

December 19, 2022

Online learning has offered us so many more opportunities to provide flexible learning to students. But how can we ensure a balance is struck so that they are not overwhelmed, especially since we've returned to more regular in-person teaching?

This week, on Episode 2 of the LearnSci Webcasts we were joined by Dr. Shane Austin from the University of the West Indies and Prof. Nicky King from the University of Exeter, to discuss the balance between flexibility and structure for student learning.

How have student expectations and experiences of flexibility in their learning changed over the pandemic?

1. The high degree of flexibility due to resources being placed online was overwhelming for many students.

The accessibility of additional resources, lecture notes and recordings available during the pandemic was widely appreciated by students, as this allowed for flexibility in their learning. However for some, the amount of content became overwhelming and they felt that they had to ‘do everything’.

To address this balance, both Nicky and Shane mention the importance of providing a narrative to support any resources provided to students, to give them context so that they’re aware of where content fits into their learning.

2. Students are still learning differently

During the pandemic, the availability of content online meant that students learned differently. Nicky and Shane both pointed out that some students felt they had learnt more deeply during term time because of these resources, and therefore were more prepared when it came to assessment preparation. 

Students have continued to learn differently now that teaching is back in person, and therefore educators need to adapt their approaches. Consider what’s most valuable for in-person sessions, balancing students’ desires for flexibility with what can realistically be achieved. 

3. Flexibility affects students differently, and can come with a cost

It’s important to consider how added flexibility in curriculum design affects student populations with special educational needs. Some students appreciate and benefit from being able to access recordings and extra materials at their own pace, while for others the increased number of resources and ways to access information is overwhelming and confusing. 

Flexibility and online delivery can also mean students who are at risk of dropping out may slip under the radar. Engagement is difficult to track authentically when students are relying on each other for resources, learning online, and perhaps not engaging in-person as much as they used to. This is a challenge that many universities are still facing post-covid.

"I do think my students, for the most part, tended to enjoy the flexibility at the start. I think coming onto the end, flexibility mixed with the various modalities that we were using became a little bit exhausting for them."
Dr. Shane Austin, the University of the West Indies
“I think many universities at the moment are grappling with that question of attendance versus engagement. What is it that helps us identify students in need of support, students who may be struggling, and identify them before the point where they fail stuff?”
Prof. Nicky King, University of Exeter

Top Tips to help educators manage this balance between flexibility and structure

1. Be willing to engage with students…

Don’t wait for feedback at the end of a module or course.  Engage with students in the moment - ask what you can do for them and how you can serve them better. You don’t have to tailor your whole curriculum around what they want, but introduce 'structured flexibility' around how you teach.

Shane suggested giving students some options at the start of a module, and asking how they’d prefer content to be delivered, or perhaps simply what they want from the course and experience of learning. That way, you can focus more on areas that the students will get the most value from.

2. …But don’t try and be everything for everyone.

Be realistic with what you can do, for your students and for yourself. You know what works best and what makes you confident and enthusiastic about what you’re teaching. It can be useful to listen to other perspectives and ideas, but keep in mind what you are realistically able to do to support your students!

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Thank you to Shane and Nicky for joining us on this week’s webcast and sharing your experiences with our community. You can view the full webcast recording and the rest of our series on our YouTube channel, and join the conversation on Twitter at #LearnSciWebcasts.

Next time, we’re joined by Dr. Andrew Allsebrook, Dr. Courtney Davy and Dr. Callum Cooper to discuss first year labs, and how to make them less daunting. Want to be the first to know? Subscribe to our mailing list for the latest updates.