Why We Need More Than ‘Learn At Your Own Pace’

By BrainStation July 16, 2018

Let’s get one thing straight: We love MOOCs and ‘learn at your own pace’ training options. 

The flexibility and convenience offered by these kinds of learning models have made digital skills training much more accessible than ever before. The trouble is, completion rates for these kinds of courses and programs have traditionally been very low, with rates anywhere from 0.5 percent to 10 percent.

Why that is may have a lot to do with human nature. Here’s why we need more than ‘learn at your own pace’ learning models.

Learners Need to Attend to Succeed

According to Researchers at SUNY Albany, student success is directly related to student attendance. In fact, they concluded that attendance is the single most important predictor of high grades, a better predictor than SAT scores, high school GPA, study skills, or study habits. Their meta-analysis incorporated almost a century of data and included more than 28,000 student outcomes, leading them to conclude that “the use of the online classroom resources and improved textbooks have not decreased the importance of attending class.”

In the UK, a causal effect of absence on student performance was determined by University of Warwick researchers, who studied undergraduate Economics students over a period of three years. High-performing students’ grades were hardest hit by cutting classes. Likewise, class attendance was statistically proven to be a “key determinant of academic performance” for Engineering students at the University of Exeter, even when students had unlimited and unrestricted access to online lecture notes.

Learners Need Access to Expertise

Why does attendance make such a difference for course performance? In the Warwick and Exeter studies, all students had access to online course materials and textbooks. Only those students who attended the in-class lectures and tutorials had access to instructors. They benefited from regular face time with a subject matter expert.

A major challenge with learning on your own can be if you get stuck on a concept, a task, or a problem sequence. When instructors are not readily accessible to take questions, students tend to flounder. Instructors also articulate the metacognitive framework for what’s being studied; essentially, they help students appreciate and develop best practices for learning. A study conducted by the University of Warwick found that one of the primary causes of MOOC dropout was the lack of instructor support provided when the course becomes challenging.

Sure, a few exceptional students do just fine cutting class until the day of the exam. But these people are just that, an exception. Live interaction with a knowledgeable instructor remains an important component of learning, for many reasons. Harman Singh, Founder of WizIQ, explained one of the most common to Fast Company, “The real problem is when you get stuck, no matter how motivated you are, you can’t get through a concept. I need an instructor, a teacher, to help me get through some tough subjects.”

Learners Need Other Students

Attendance is also crucial for how it feeds student engagement. This was a lesson learned by Harvard Professor David J. Malan, who now encourages regular attendance for his popular 800-student Introduction to Computer Science course.

In the 2016/17 school year, Malan told students they need only attend the first and last class meetings. The rest of the semester they would have free and open access to the course material online, and could choose to learn on their own, however, and whenever they wished. He reversed that decision for 2017/18 school year, telling Inside Higher Ed that “enough former students reported something was missing, not just the students themselves but the energy of the audience, that we decided to bring live lectures back this fall.”   

Learning plainly has a social component; students enjoy and benefit from the participation of others in the class. This might be especially true in continuing education and professional training, where the life and workplace experience of adult students can be considerable. More importantly, peers can be a huge source of motivation and inspiration, in the same way that having workout buddies can make the tough stuff fun and keep you on track – even when life gets hectic.

Learners Need Timelines and Deadlines

Of course, another time-honored source of extrinsic motivation is deadlines. Course timelines and deadlines hold students accountable, spurring them to produce, keep up, and complete their work. In the ‘learn at your own pace’ model, timelines and deadlines are negotiable, at best, non-existent, at worst.

Deadlines can be inconvenient, but how many of us can accomplish non-trivial things like higher education without them? If the stats on MOOCs are any indication, less than 10% of us. While self-implemented deadlines can help with procrastination, a study conducted by Psychologist Dan Ariely explains that they aren’t nearly as effective as those that are externally imposed.

Complementing ‘Learn At Your Own Pace’

Whether it’s in a lecture hall or via a virtual classroom, live, real-time interaction with instructors gives students the interaction and guidance they need – and this is why ‘learn at your own pace’ models often fall short. What’s needed is a middle ground that combines the flexibility of online learning options, with the interaction, support, and structure of instructor-led training. Creating this was the driving force behind BrainStation’s Online Live course offerings, which are powered by Synapse, our very own data-driven learning platform.

Synapse lets our learners attend live lectures, collaborate with other professionals, and get immediate feedback from expert Instructors — just as they would in one of BrainStation’s campuses. So far, the reaction (and student performance) has been tremendous.

The challenge for educators and learners alike is to continue developing these types of platforms and methodologies, to ensure we’re balancing an increased demand for online education with the way people actually learn. We’re on the right track.

Interested in learning more about flexible course options? Check out BrainStation’s Online live programs.