Student Engagement as a Predictor of Academic Outcome in an Online Pharmacotherapy Course

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Kathy Vu


PHM653 – Contemporary Topics in Oncology
Doctor of Pharmacy
Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy

Poster and Video Presentation – Teaching and Learning Symposium, May 2021

Design Context

This course is a required third year pharmacotherapy course in the pharmacy curriculum. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this course was taught online in fall 2020 to 234 students. This online course used asynchronous and synchronous lectures, tutorials and workshops held weekly or biweekly. There is an asynchronous online discussion board (PeppeR) to encourage communication and community (important as students were adapting to online learning). Gamification (TeamUp!) was used as a pedagogical approach to promote group work, enjoyment, engagement and competition. Workshops are structured using a scaffolding approach – lectures, study guides, mini quizzes were used to instill knowledge; pre-workshop tutorials and workshops were used to apply the knowledge; and case-based assignments and open-book examinations were used to assess knowledge.

Instructional Challenge

The main instructional challenge is engaging students in a complex topic (oncology) that is both challenging and dense in content. It is difficult to pick out the students who are struggling and to understand if the course design is optimal for online learning.

Quercus provides instructors with basic analytical tools to get a snapshot of course activity (i.e. page views) over time and performance (i.e. grades). However, this cohort approach to viewing engagement does not let instructors see the students who may be struggling with the content or instructional design as they are “hidden” behind a virtual wall.

Design Strategy

Wiggins’ Backward Design Theory

The first design strategy used was Wiggins’ Backward Design Theory (Wiggins, 1998). We theorized that online learning would prove to be challenging for students who are used to an in-person approach to learning. Therefore, we felt that it would be critical to apply the Backward Design theory in order to systematically review the learning objectives of the course in order to ensure that content is relevant and assessments are appropriate.

Learners assembling to find answers and construct learning together based on a patient case with a series of questions designed to provoke inquiry.

Social Constructivism Theory and Community of Inquiry Model

The second design strategy leaned on the social constructivist theory and the Community of Inquiry model. Vygotsky proposed that learning is achieved through problem solving and that the social construction of solutions to problems is the basis of the learning process (Picciano, 2017). He described the learning process as the establishment of a “zone of proximal development” in which the teacher, the learner, and a problem to be solved exist. The teacher provides a social environment in which the learner can assemble or construct with others the knowledge necessary to solve the problem (Picciano, 2017).

As an extension of the social constructivism theory, the community of inquiry framework was used to ensure that social presence, teaching presence, learner presence and cognitive presence are all considered to facilitate successful educational experiences in online distance learning environment (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 1999). This formed the basis of the workshop design. Workshops used TeamUp! as the social environment where small groups gathered to answer questions based on a patient case. Students referred to study guides, published literature and existing knowledge to construct new knowledge as a group. A deliberate scaffolding approach was taken in the course design to ensure students could succeed. Lectures with knowledge check questions and instructor-created study guides formed the basis for delivering information. Pre-workshop tutorials and an online discussion board (PeppeR) were used to reinforce learning by providing an opportunity for students to ask clarifying questions to engage with the content. Cases-based assignments were used to apply knowledge and workshops were used to analyze and evaluate knowledge.

Use of Data to Inform Design Iteration and Instruction

Using data science, we are pulling information about students’ access to course materials to determine/correlate engagement with learning outcomes. We are making the following assumptions: accessing course content by clicking on links and documents etc. constitutes engagement. We will not look at the number of clicks or time spent on each activity. We will then perform statistical analysis (univariate and multivariate analysis) to better understand the correlation between the level of engagement and outcome. We will also aim to better understand if the design of larger, more complex workshop topics is successful in learning outcomes if the level of engagement is high.

Objective #1

Determine if there is any correlation between level of engagement with course content (overall) and course outcome (grade).

Objective #2

Determine if there is a correlation between engagement with course design for Workshop topics and course outcome (grade).

Next Steps

An initial review of available reports from Quercus showed a positive trend in Page Views and Participation and final grades. We can see that students who performed the best (>90%), on average, had the most Page Views and Participation scores. However, these measures are limited by what is included in the Page Views and Participation definition.

I am working with colleagues to pull course utilization information. Using data science, we are hoping to extract meaningful results from Quercus. We are currently validating the data (quality assurance) and finalizing the results in order to perform statistical analysis.


Presented at the Teaching and Learning Symposium, May 2021.

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Presentation Video