Utilize Online Tools and Sound Learning Science to Improve the Student Writing and Analysis Process

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Engaging freshman students in a relevant authentic learning opportunity utilizing technology and resources to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills is useful throughout a student’s college career and increases the likelihood of graduation. We developed a seminar building student confidence and preparing them for the demands of college rigor.


Jane Sutterlin is currently a Learning Designer in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, John A. Dutton eEducation Institute at Penn State University. She joined Penn State in 2012 and collaborates with content specialty faculty in designing and maintaining online, face to face and blended courses. Before she came to Penn State she worked with High School teachers in the State College Area High School as an Instructional Technology Specialist. In collaboration with the teachers, she helped to incorporate technology in meaningful ways into the curriculum. Jane graduated with a Masters in Learning, Design, and Technology and a BS in Elementary Education from Penn State.

Extended Abstract

Throughout history, diseases, in general, have plagued the human condition and continue to do so. This disease theme serves as a foundation to develop a college freshman seminar titled “Surviving a Diseased World.” The seminar’s purpose is three-fold. First, the seminar creates an intensive writing opportunity. Second, students are immersed in a timely global-scale topic that relates to the different departments housed in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Third, students are introduced to the various technological resources available to all Penn State students such as Canvas, library resources, writing center, etc. 

In this presentation session, the audience will discover how learning engagement strategies in this seminar help freshmen from different specialized scientific departments develop critical reading and thinking skills, compose effective written and oral arguments, and foster scientific research competencies. This session also focuses on the various active learning strategies and classroom experiences that prepare students early in their careers for the rigors of college and the eventual demands of their chosen career path. 

Building student academic confidence and preparing students for the rigors of college is an important way to increase the likelihood that students will experience success and earn their degrees on time. This seminar offers students the opportunity to explore how disease, in general, is inter-related to their area of study. By studying, researching, and reporting on various diseases, students improve their written and oral communication skills, learn how to effectively use technology and library resources, take ownership of their self-directed learning and build a learning community of their peers while adjusting to the demands of college life.

Overview of the Course Design:

Activities for this course scaffold into a term-long project. Learning is made personal by giving students a choice of a disease that interests them and is related to their scientific area of study. For example, meteorologists interested in climate change may study the geographic range of the aedes aegypti mosquito that is sensitive to humidity levels and spreads dengue fever, environmental scientists who study environmental conditions may be interested in polio or cholera that are largely caused by poor sanitation, or human geographers who examine human behavior may look into what factors are contributing to the dramatic increase in sexually transmitted infections.

Once the topic is selected, the project asks students to examine the spatial distribution of the disease, explore what factors controlled the distribution of the disease, and to provide a spatial analysis of the distribution. To accomplish these tasks, students use online databases (WHO, U.S. Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc.) to collect appropriate data, statistical software (GeoDa) to analyze the data, and Office 365 to present their findings. They utilize other University resources such as Canvas, Box, etc. to collect, organize, and submit their work. 

The term-long project has intermediate deadlines that students have to meet. These deadlines are intended to keep students on track, engage with the instructor who provides them with ongoing feedback with their data analysis, and help them write scientifically and professionally. The term-long project culminates with a formal paper and a presentation to the class. Other students in the class are expected to provide peer-reviews of all presentations.  

In addition to the term-long project, students prepare weekly reflection statements, participate in low-stake quizzes, and present their own “medical minute.” The reflection statements are three-page written summaries of current health-related topics (e.g., anti-vaccine movement) and the impacts that those topics have on public health (sudden measle epidemics). After obtaining feedback from the instructor on their written reflection, in-class discussions follow where students are able to voice their own perspectives about the reflection statement topic and debate the validity of alternative viewpoints. Low-stakes quizzes are given several times throughout the semester to help motivate students to complete the reading assignment and identify any missed concepts that can be brought up for discussion later. Each student also presents to the class a ”medical minute.” This presentation allows a student to give a short synopsis of a current health topic. The goal of this medical minute is to help simulate class discussion on a timely public health topic.

Engagement of Participants:

Participants will be able to describe ways to integrate:

  • authentic student-centered learning activities

  • cognitive science research in innovative ways

  • feedback as a means for students to facilitate self-regulation  

In this session, we will engage audience members with some of the tools our students used, such as online databases (WHO, Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc.) and statistical software (GeoDa).  We will ask audience members to contribute data that we will analyze and discuss together.  

We will also engage audience members in discussions about how we incorporated cognitive science research in innovative ways into the course and how students used feedback as a means to facilitate self-regulation.  We will discuss ways that these activities can be modified and incorporated into other classes or formats to reinforce these skills.  

Finally, we will share with audience members the comments we received from students at the end of the class on their expectations and experiences of the course.