Student deskSo, your students have achieved access, they are motivated, and you have established a sense of learning community in your online spaces.

Now, for learning based on social-constructivist principles to really flourish, members of your community need to feel confident as independent learners, contributors and collaborators. This is true whether learning takes place in physical or online spaces. But we need to give extra attention to nurturing these attributes in online spaces because we lack the full array of social and cultural signals we would normally transmit and interpret in physical face-to-face situations.

Revisiting your intended learning outcomes

As a starting point, consider your intended learning outcomes (ILOs) for each teaching session or learning engagement from your learners’ perspective. What do you want them to do (beyond watching or listening to an online lecture)? Are there opportunities for them to engage in different kinds of learning activities?

Think about how the outcomes for the session contribute to the ILOs of the whole module and of the programme, and make these connections explicit to students. Help students to understand the value of the kinds of learning activities they will be asked to engage in, and how they support the attainment of those higher goals as well as assessment performance.

Becoming confident contributors

Begin with some simple cooperative activities to build student confidence in sharing ideas online, and to nurture trust in the contributions of their peers. As part of these developmental activities, discussions about effective time management and independent learning practices can be introduced and integrated.

Design learning activities that encourage active participation, and be aware of students who consistently 'lurk' or just listen without actively engaging. Create 'low-stakes' opportunities that minimise resistance for hesitant students (e.g. through pair work). These activities can be facilitated synchronously (e.g. during live video classes on MS Teams), or asynchronously using discussion forums or other platforms for sharing dialogue, ideas and outcomes. Some tips on designing and facilitating online learning can be found by clicking here.

Small groups and collaborative learning

Gradually introduce small-group activities, perhaps focused around carefully-chosen digital resources (videos, recorded lectures, readings, etc.) and explain to students how you would like them to use such materials (e.g. working with them actively and critically, not relying on them as the sole 'source' of learning, etc.).

As students' confidence in social online learning increases, more sophisticated collaborative group work can be introduced. Tasks and activities can be designed that encourage investigation, problem-solving, negotiation and collaborative output – all explicitly aligned with the intended learning outcomes of the module. In these advanced stages the teacher takes on a supportive and responsive role as students engage in project work, or other activities that are authentic, application-based and student-led.

Student taking a selfie

Reflection, development and self-efficacy

Learning activities can be especially powerful if they are integrated with some form of reflection by students on how they approached and carried out the tasks, and what they have learned about themselves in the process. Reflection on experience is valuable for developing learner meta-cognition, self-efficacy and independence. It will support students in integrating and applying academic learning to real-world challenges and practice, and will also help them to apply their knowledge effectively at the point of summative assessment.

Importantly, reflective processes create opportunities for learners to become self-aware, not just of what they have learned, but of who they have become on their learning journey. This is the space where personal and professional qualities can be examined, and visceral connections to the Imperial Graduate Attributes can be nurtured and acknowledged.