Tutorials in times of pandemic: Active participation and interaction in online education

By Swantje Falcke and Marie Labussière

Last Spring, the courses taught in period 5 had to be moved online within a matter of days. Although challenging under these circumstances, adapting to online teaching has led to a great range of innovative solutions and adjustments. Teachers had to expand their toolbox of skills and instruments and experience new forms of interaction with students. In this post, we come back to our experience as tutors in the second-year BA ES skills course “Research Methods: Introduction to quantitative methods”. 

The introduction course to quantitative methods is taught with weekly lectures and tutorials. It includes both a theoretical and a practical component: students acquire a basic understanding of statistical concepts and apply this knowledge to the Eurobarometer dataset using a statistical software (SPSS). While there are no PBL group discussions, the course is very interactive and students play an active role because they have to complete tasks and exercises on their computer. Tutors in this course have an important role in accompanying students, encouraging active participation, and reassuring students that they can tackle the material of the course. This is in this course particularly important as quite some students have  “statistics anxiety” associated with low self-esteem in tackling statistical problems. 

When it was clear that the course would take place online, the course coordinator decided that both lectures and tutorials would be audio-recorded using the existing slides. Additionally, a weekly Q&A session would enable students to ask questions about the material of the week. The digital exam took place via TestVision where students had to answer a number of questions using the statistical software on a new dataset.

Two watchwords: interaction and engagement!

As tutors, we then thought about how to maintain interaction and student engagement in this online setting. We asked ourselves the following questions: 

  1. How to compensate for the lack of interaction between students and the tutor, as the tutorials were now asynchronous?
  2. How to stimulate students’ engagement with the course while they were passively “consuming” the videos?

Exploring a new toolbox of instruments: quizzes and assignments

When recording the tutorials, we wanted to ensure that students do not only read the slides without processing the information nor practising the use of the statistical programme. To encourage active engagement with the course materials, we integrated additional tools: quizzes and assignments. 

When tutorials took place on-site, the first minutes of the sessions were devoted to reviewing important notions or definitions from previous lectures with some short oral exercises, to have students get back into the swing of things. Quizzes were created to mimic this warm-up activity in the online setting. We designed the questions so that they would reactivate knowledge from prior tutorials and help students to connect the different statistical concepts. Furthermore, it was a test for themselves to see whether the content of previous sessions was well understood.

While students were encouraged to take the quiz before starting a new tutorial, they were invited to complete the assignments while or after listening to the recorded tutorial. In previous years, when tutorials took place on-site, students would practise with the statistical software during the tutorial. By encouraging them to do the exercises in the assignment during the online tutorial, we aimed to have a virtual resemblance of the on-site practise. When recording the tutorial, we would indicate where in the tutorial it would be fitting to do the exercise.

In the assignments, exercises were longer and more complex than those of the quizzes; they would require to apply a number of statistical procedures and to correctly interpret the results. Solutions were provided before the Q&A, so that students could ask us questions on the assignment.

Positive feedback from some students to the course coordinator soon suggested that the content was clear. We saw that students were participating well in the quizzes (160 attempts on average, out of a total of 247 students), and the recorded tutorials (minimum 500 views). While we were afraid that insecure students would be at a particular disadvantage in the online setting, it actually seems that it was beneficial to them. Students could follow the tutorials at their own pace and take the time they need to complete the assignments and become familiar with the statistical software. Overall, we feel that the recorded tutorials – in combination with the quizzes and assignments – were a good way to facilitate active learning of the statistical procedures and software in this course.