A picture is worth a thousand words
Dr Alice Cherestes and Dr Leslie Schneider
What is the idea?
Visual Classrooms, a Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning platform was used alongside carefully designed course-based activities to support active learning and peer-feedback in a university Organic Chemistry course. STEM disciplines such as Organic Chemistry benefit tremendously from strategies that make ‘thinking visible’. The platform’s interactive collaboration features make it easy for students to engage with each other and create visual artifacts that make their thinking visible and enable peer feedback. This empowers students to independently assess their own and others’ progress, maximising learning and engagement. As well, instructors can easily identify students’ misconceptions. In an end-of-term survey, students confirmed that Visual Classrooms made it easier for them to actively demonstrate their understanding of course content.
Why this idea?
This idea represents our initial effort to build metacognitive skills in a university level Organic Chemistry class. Many students study only to achieve a grade without actually thinking about their learning, fear of failure being their main motivator. Our main goal is to use a collaborative learning environment called Visual Classrooms along with peer feedback activities to teach students metacognitive skills such as how to reflect on their thinking and build trust in each other’s explanation without always having to rely on the expert opinion. Peer feedback activities and rubrics provided students the tools and scaffolding needed to make reflective judgements and develop strategies to focus on, improve, or review areas they needed to work on. In addition, the platform created a safe space for sharing learning, a space where students felt they were in charge of their learning while also building a sense of community and belonging.
This approach reflects the theoretical perspectives of active learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991) and was guided by principles from Computer-Supported-Collaborative-Learning (CSCL). Active learning is an instructional method that actively engages students with the course material and each other through discussions, problem solving, case studies, and other methods. Formative peer assessment is a social endeavour and promotes the development of lifelong skills – critical thinking, communication, and collaboration (Strijbos & Wichmann, 2018; Topping, 1998). According to Hattie (2015, p. 79); ‘when teachers see teaching and learning through the eyes of their students, and when students become their own teachers then outcomes and engagement are maximised.’ CSCL complements this view with enhanced tools for managing learning and activities that both increase student content knowledge and foster work-life skills, such as collaborative problem-solving with shared understanding and decision-making (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Collaborative learning fosters flexibility whereby learners gain insight into their own thinking processes (Strijbos et al., 2004). As well, group interaction exposes students to different views giving learners the chance to examine dense material from multiple perspectives.
As well, Visual Classrooms’ drawing tools make it easy for students to produce the kind of visual representations that are critical in a variety of disciplines. Visual representations (photos, drawings, etc) play an especially important role in all STEM disciplines. According to Wu and Shah (2004), chemistry is a visual science and visualisations play a major role in communicating and understanding its concepts and processes. In biology models can describe or simplify complex phenomena and facilitate the communication of ideas and concepts (Svoboda & Passmore, 2013).
How could others implement this idea?
Peer feedback is an effective pedagogical strategy to teach students the metacognitive skills of critical thinking, giving and receiving feedback, and taking responsibility for their own learning. It can be implemented by instructors teaching any discipline. The key is creating feedback rubrics to support students as they construct their own useful formative feedback and develop a sense about what ‘good work’ looks like. The following workflow diagram outlines step-by-step instructions on how to implement:
In our case, students were given detailed instructions/rubrics to guide them in how to provide feedback. It focused on explaining their reasoning. In addition to solving the problems, students were asked to provide feedback to peers. Two types of feedback were requested: feedback in which they had to choose a correct answer and explain why it was correct and feedback in which they chose an incorrect answer and also explained why it was incorrect. In case an incorrect post was not found available, students were asked to explain what type of modifications they would add to the answer/post to make it incorrect. Also students were encouraged to provide not only written feedback but also draw structures – which is a critical part of learning organic chemistry. Finally, moderators were utilised to review the feedback and flag issues that required instructor attention.
This approach can be used without technology but it is certainly easier and more effective to provide timely feedback as a formative assessment tool for both students and instructors.
Transferability to different contexts
This approach is transferable to any content area with Visual Classrooms or without for both online and face-to-face instruction. It is especially beneficial for online learning where finding ways to help students remain engaged with both the content and each other becomes even more critical.
Links to tools and resources
Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University.
Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of visible learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 79-91. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000021
Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327809jls0303_3
Strijbos, J. W., & Wichmann, A. (2018). Promoting learning by leveraging the collaborative nature of formative peer assessment with instructional scaffolds. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 33(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-017-0353-x
Strijbos, J. W., Kirschner, P. A., & Martens, R. L. (2004). What we know about CSCL. In J. W. Strijbos, P. A. Kirschner & R. L. Martens (Eds.), What we know about CSCL (pp. 245-259). Springer. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/1-4020-7921-4_10
Svoboda, J., & Passmore, C. (2013). The strategies of modeling in biology education. Science & Education, 22(1), 119-142. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-011-9425-5
Topping, K. (1998). Peer assessment between students in colleges and universities. Review of Educational Research, 68(3), 249-276. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543068003249
Wu, H. K., & Shah, P. (2004). Exploring visuospatial thinking in chemistry learning. Science Education, 88(3), 465-492. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.10126
Figure 1. Screenshot – Assignment layout in Visual Classrooms by Alice Cherestes and Leslie Schneider is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence
Figure 2. Screenshot – ‘Prompt and New Idea’ in Visual Classrooms with student responses and feedback shown below by Alice Cherestes and Leslie Schneider is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence
Figure 3. Screenshot – Pedagogical flow of Visual Classrooms assignments by Alice Cherestes and Leslie Schneider is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence
Figure 4. Screenshot – Example ‘Assignment Question’ with types of feedback differentiated using colour boxes by Alice Cherestes and Leslie Schneider is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence
Figure 5. Screenshot – Students use both correct and constructive feedback by Alice Cherestes and Leslie Schneider is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence
Figure 6. Screenshot – Instructor uses feedback to directly and visually point out student error by Alice Cherestes and Leslie Schneider is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence