This project aims to serve the national interest by improving student engagement in undergraduate biology courses at two-year and four-year institutions. Specifically, the research team will explore how students interact with online assignments and what factors influence that interaction. Formative assessments give students the opportunity to test and revise their understanding of course content before their learning is measured to determine their course grade. However, instructors often expect students to complete formative assessments outside of class, typically via online platforms. The expectation of this additional work creates challenges for some students. For example, students may have limited access to technology or have external responsibilities that affect the time they can spend on these assignments. Such challenges and their unequal distribution have been spotlighted because of the rapid and sustained increase in higher education’s dependence on remote or online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that these challenges affect how students approach learning and the resources they choose. However, few studies have been done to explore student approaches to completing online assignments. This project aims to help fill this gap, and thus provide tools to improve students’ instructional strategies and enhance their learning in online environments. This project intends to benefit society by providing insights into how student backgrounds and circumstances affect their learning behaviors in online courses and how these behaviors affect course outcomes.

Building on prior research, this project will adopt a multi-methods approach to investigate and improve undergraduate student engagement with online formative assessments completed outside of class time. The project team will pioneer a novel two-stage protocol involving video recordings of biology students completing authentic online course assignments and then conduct follow-up interviews to clarify their learning approaches, discuss why they used certain resources (e.g., classmates; textbooks; websites), and identify potential barriers to resource access (e.g., internet availability; social connectedness). Drawing from these interviews, the project team will create closed-ended surveys for students to report their learning approaches and resource use and indicate external factors that might affect their ability to complete online assignments. Administering these instruments broadly will allow exploration of quantitative connections between personal demographics, access/barriers, formative assessments utilization behaviors, and learning outcomes. With particular attention to the potential barriers faced by underserved groups, the project team will facilitate a working group of biology faculty that will develop and implement strategies to guide students about how to overcome challenges and interact productively with online assignments. The newly developed survey instruments will be used to monitor the impact that this guidance has on student outcomes. By disseminating findings through reports to educational communities, this project will help replace anecdotal intuitions with evidence-based accounts of student experiences in completing online assignments. Investigating asynchronous assignment completion represents a critical research direction given the longstanding desire among institutions to develop flexible course formats that work with busy student schedules. The NSF IUSE: EHR Program supports research and development projects to improve the effectiveness of STEM education for all students. This Level 1 project is aligned with the Engaged Student Learning track, which the supports the creation, exploration, and implementation of promising practices and tools.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Pushpa Ramakrishna
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Southeast Community College
United States
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