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What is most important for students in the digital learning environment?

Photo of Sandra Nilsson, educational developer at LTH.

Perhaps we course lecturers can use digital technology to become better at giving feedback and providing a clearer structure to our courses? Maybe digitisation gives us a golden opportunity to rethink content, relevance and what we really want students to think about as they study? Read Sandra Nilsson’s think piece based on a study published at LTH’s Pedagogical Inspiration Conference on 9 December 2021. The study, by S Nilsson, T Roxå, is entitled “What is most important for students in their digital learning environment?” (Vad är viktigast för studenterna i deras digitala lärmiljö?). Based on the results of the study, how can teaching staff look to the future?

Photo: My Rask.

There have been several international studies that have investigated the use of digital tools by students, but in the early days, there seemed to be a lack of attention on what students themselves perceived as most important. Hence why I have been taking a closer look at the issue over the past few years. Based on student interviews and course evaluation responses, three key points have emerged.

Analogue and digital studies together build an integrated whole

Lecturers should be aware that, from the perspective of students, there is no significant difference between what happens digitally and what the lecturer may perceive as “the real course”, i.e. campus-based teaching. We can use the opportunity to meet on campus for wonderful things, but we also have to accept that from the student’s perspective, analogue and digital together form an integrated whole. This in turn means that it is necessary for each lecturer to make their (pedagogical) ideas visible in the digital milieu as well. Holding teaching sessions on campus is invaluable, and essential in many subjects, but as the use of digital learning environments has already become a natural part of a student’s everyday life, we need to be careful to make sure that all components come together in a clear way.

What is important to students?

In all teaching, what matters is what the lecturer does, and does not do. There are even studies that show a correlation between students’ perceptions of the digital environment and their academic performance. At the Faculty of Engineering (LTH), we have a standardised course evaluation system (CEQ) that is designed to measure the aspects that really matter for learning. The system does not specifically evaluate digital environments however (although it is indirectly related to all other teaching, as described above), and therefore I have also arranged focus group discussions, added my own questions to the course evaluations, and analysed the free text responses where digital learning environments are mentioned.

The conclusion is that students appear to perceive the following points as most important for ensuring a digital learning environment supports their own learning:

  1. The structure of the material.
    A good structure needs to clearly outline the course content. Perhaps it is a matter of the structure indicating what is expected week by week, or otherwise ordering the material so that it corresponds to how the student is expected to approach it.
  2. Opportunities to plan for oneself (accessibility).
    Students appreciate transparency that allows them to understand what they missed in cases of illness or to know what should be tackled next to stay ahead.
  3. Opportunities to work actively oneself and to feel motivated to do so.
    Motivation is assumed to be strengthened already by points 1 and 2 above. If the course environment feels like a safe place where students can trust the relevance and structure of the material, their attitude to working on it will also be more positive. Students also appreciate opportunities to actively engage with the material, both in a way that makes them feel that they have really mastered something and that allows them to practice proactively and test their knowledge as it develops.

Course evaluation questions

Based on these discoveries about what students think is most important in digital learning environments, some questions, currently voluntary, were developed for lecturers to include in their course evaluations at LTH.

  • Question 1: It was easy to understand how the course lecturer intended the digital environment to be used.
  • Question 2: The structure of the course’s digital materials facilitated my learning.
  • Question 3: The course’s digital environment encouraged me to work actively on the material.

Analyses of the results showed a strong correlation between the course evaluation scale for good teaching (i.e. the aggregated result of the teaching factors that have been proven to enhance learning) and the outcome on the proposed questions (especially questions 1 and 2). This suggests that lecturers with good teaching skills also manage digital environments satisfactorily. Alternatively, it could be evidence that what is presented in the digital environment and all the “other teaching” merge into one and influence each other, and that it is simply too difficult to get an overall assessment of whether the handling of the digital learning environment has been adequate.

Future digital teaching

I myself love campus-based teaching, but at the same time argue that digital tools can open the door to a more active processing of course material. This does not mean it is automatically good teaching just because students are having discussions in breakout rooms or posting in online forums; rather, we need to ask ourselves: what do we want students to think about when they take our course? And how can we stimulate this kind of thinking? So, I do not want us to focus on what students think about a course, but rather what they think about while they are studying a course, and how to motivate them to dig deeper and deeper.

Think broader, wilder and in completely new terms about how digital technology can support learning 

I think lecturers are often very aware of what needs to happen in a student’s head in order for them to do well on a course. But perhaps it is time to think outside the box when it comes to how students get there. Instead of focusing on how we can translate our previous analogue course material into equivalent digital versions, we need to reflect on the new possibilities that technology offers us. Perhaps we can get students to work through difficult parts of the course material by different means than we are used to, and even with better results. Maybe we can also use digital technology to provide better feedback and a clearer structure to our courses. Digitisation might even give us a golden opportunity to rethink content, relevance and what we really want students to think about as they study. Therefore, I simply hope that in the future we can move beyond that initial panic about “where do I click...” and instead think broader, wilder and in completely new terms about how digital technology can support learning.

Contact details

Sandra Nilsson
Educational developer and lecturer at the Academic Development Unit at the Centre for Engineering Education, LTH’s joint pedagogical support and development unit, and lecturer at the Department of Computer Science, LTH. 
sandra [dot] nilsson [at] cs [dot] lth [dot] se (sandra[dot]nilsson[at]cs[dot]lth[dot]se)

For references and further reading

S. Nilsson, T. Roxå. Vad är viktigast för studenterna i deras digitala lärmiljö? [What is most important for students in their digital learning environment?] Pedagogiska inspirationskonferensen LTH; 2021; Lund. Lund: Lund University; 2021.

Read the full article here – (in Swedish)