Putting Blended Learning to the Test

Electronic media offer valuable tools for learning, but what is the best way to integrate these technologies within the traditional university setting?  Brent Stockwell, a faculty member in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, recently asked himself this question about blended learning, an educational approach he had begun incorporating into his undergraduate biochemistry class. As Columbia News reports, the results of this investigation have been published in the journal Cell:

A few years ago biochemist Brent Stockwell became concerned that his traditional methods of teaching—comprised of textbook readings, in-class lectures and tests—weren’t effectively reaching his students. So the professor of biological sciences and chemistry began tweaking his undergraduate course called “Structure and Metabolism.”

He transferred his lecture material to videos so his students could watch lectures before class, and he restructured classroom time to have students solve problems in groups. He used a polling service to ask students—anonymously and in real time—what they got from that day’s lesson, and their answers informed his subsequent presentations.

Was his new approach working? He wasn’t sure. “I wondered, ‘Where can I find an expert in randomized controlled trials who would work with me on this?’”

Stockwell and his wife, Melissa, an associate professor of pediatrics and population and family health at Columbia University Medical Center, frequently discuss their work over dinner. One night it hit him. “I realized my wife does clinical trials for a living.”

Now they are co-authors of an unconventional paper in the Aug. 27 issue of the journal Cell , which demonstrates how blended learning techniques enhance both student engagement and performance in science education. The students’ exam grades improved as a result of the in-class problem solving, and the video assignments increased attendance and satisfaction, they found.

“In medicine clinical trials are common, and my expertise is in pragmatic trials in real-life settings,” said Melissa Stockwell. “It really fit well with Brent’s work when he wanted to test these methods in his class. And it was exciting for me to use what I know from the medical field and apply it in a new area.”

Then there was the serendipity factor: “We’ve been married for 15 years, but this is our first opportunity to collaborate together—other than our children,” she said.

Now their collaboration outside the home may have an impact on teaching and learning at Columbia and many other institutions that have been investing in online learning.

Read an interview with the Stockwells here: