Study Technique: Understanding requirements for a unit of work

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This is taken from the course I am developing to introduce students to learning online. I think it is perhaps the most important technique for student success. It is also the most convincing justification for teachers to use a well designed virtual learning environment.

Advice for students

When your learning happens in a traditional on-campus environment, it is usually easier to work out what you need to do and when you need to do it. You go to lectures, listen, take notes, ask questions. Then perhaps seminars. Workshops, labs, etc. And later on in the term you do  some kind of assessed work – an exam, or an essay.

You will find that online learning can be a bit more complicated. A unit or module might contain many more shorter activities, of many different types. Some of these will include tasks for you to do, beyond just reading text. Some of those tasks will be required, some optional. Some might be assessed, some not. They may also require you to collaborate with other students in various ways (more on that later in this section).

You should be especially aware of how assessment can be done differently online. There is a tendency for it to be more continuous. It might be spread out over several smaller tasks. You might need to keep a blog or reflective journal. You might get additional marks for participation, such as posting to discussion forums. It’s important to know exactly how and when you will be assessed, and factor that into your planning.

This is an essential skill: skimming through a unit or module to build a clear understanding of what you need to do and when, and making your own plan to tackle all the required activities and tasks.

You will notice that in many courses, teachers put the instructions for what you need to do into a single location, using the virtual learning environment (VLE, at Warwick called Moodle). This is good teaching practice. You will also find that they use titles for each activity or resource that clearly tell you what kind of thing each is. Some of them are labeled as tasks. This is also good teaching practice.

When you look at a home page for a module/course/unit in Moodle, you will often see the tasks organised into sections. The number of pages, activities etc. for each section is listed, so you can use that to get a sense of how it is weighted.

Build a list of what you need to do. Add notes on:

  • the things you will really enjoy;
  • the things you might find hard, but cannot avoid doing (there is a tendency to conveniently forget about these);
  • things you just don’t understand at all;
  • the things you might work with other students on;
  • additional resources you will need (beyond what is in the VLE);
  • and the things you will need to spend more time on or get help from a teacher.

As you move into more comprehensive planning, you will want to think more deeply about these tasks and what extra work you will need to do, and how you might want to go beyond the work that is set to develop your own ideas and interests.

You might sometimes find that online learning isn’t arranged so neatly, or labelled so clearly. The instructions might appear in multiple systems (email, Moodle, Teams). In some cases this is deliberately designed to make it more challenging to you, replicating real-world environments. In the professional workplace, things are rarely presented in a simple straightforward manner. You have to learn to make sense from a complicated and fast changing world. You’ll have to work harder to make sense of it. You might need to ask for more clarity by contacting the teachers, or getting advice from your study buddy and fellow students. Actively seek feedback to test your understanding and your plans. Working collaboratively really helps with this challenge.

You should also be aware that things might change. Some teachers like to work in a “responsive” way, changing plans in response to student progress and feedback. So be open to change, keep listening out for new things.

Having done all this, you will need to do more systematic planning. This video from Warwick’s careers and skills team, demonstrates an effective simple approach:

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Academic Technologist, IT Services, University of Warwick Fellow of the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence

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