Discovering new ways to convey complex concepts to students

complex concepts

A Q&A with Dr James Botten, Andrew Beatton and Jayshen Ardukumar 

It doesn’t matter how many different verbal explanations you give; some concepts are difficult to grasp. This is where applying context and visualisation can be instrumental in bridging knowledge gaps.

Dr Mark Dodd and Dr Jamie Botten were awarded a 2018 Learning Enhancement and Innovation Grant for their application titled: “Learning Experience Design (LXD): An end-to-end evaluation of learning objects, from co-creation to learning impact”.

This LEI grant project centred around finding a new way of communicating complex ideas and concepts to students. Learning objects were identified as a way to illustrate certain concepts that were known to be challenging to students. As part of this project, two learning object interactives were created; one for a molecular biology course, and the other for an economic principles course. The learning objects were used within these courses so that students could test their knowledge and deepen their understanding of two very complex concepts.

For this project to succeed, it needed to be a collaborative process; bringing together subject matter expertise, learning design expertise and student insight and perspective. These were three very important elements that resulted in a successful outcome for the project.

To understand all the elements of this project, we spoke to Academic: Dr James Botten, Learning Designer: Andrew Beatton, and Student Partner: Jayshen Ardukumar to find out what they learned during the project, and the advice they would give to others.


What was your main motivation for wanting to get involved in this project?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
I’ve not previously been involved in a student co-creation project, so that aspect of working outside my usual teaching context, being able to dig deeper into some core concepts and work out ways to help students understand them in a new way was attractive.

Learning Design Voice, Andrew Beatton:
I saw this project as a great opportunity to apply some of the rapid prototyping techniques used in MOOC development to a MyUni course. This project also looked like it might extend me beyond my usual working practices to discover new and more effective ways of working.

Student Voice, Jayshen Arudkumar:
As a 3rd year Biomedical Science student, approaching the prospect of becoming a full-fledged researcher, I was excited about the prospect of developing a novel educational program that would benefit like-minded students and enhance their student experience. It is also a useful obligation as a scientist to communicate experimental research and biological concepts clearly and concisely to the public.


What was your role in the project?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
I was one of two academic staff working on the project, with my part focussing on developing a molecular biology based interactive module.

Learning Design Voice, Andrew Beatton:
I worked closely with the Molecular and Biomedical Science academic and students to assist them to workshop and storyboard their interactive learning object idea. This involved providing learning design guidance throughout the project and helping them to refine and test their design via regular workshops, storyboarding and prototyping their ‘Deciphering diagnostic digests’ learning object.

Student Voice, Jayshen Arudkumar:
I was one of 3 student co-creators under the supervision of Dr. James Botten (in Molecular Biology) where we worked collaboratively with members of LEI to develop a novel online learning interactive targeted to the 2nd year MBS Practical C module. I assisted in the stages of brainstorming, through to the development of the interactive project prototype. This involved a culmination of our ideas around effective learning and processing of information as a student in this increasing technological world.


What was LEI’s role in the project?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
The role of the LEI staff was fundamental for the success of the project, not just in providing the crucial technical support, but also in promoting effective storyboarding of the project and facilitating conversations to bring outside perspective, dramatically improving the quality of the final output.

Learning Design Voice, Andrew Beatton:
Our role was to facilitate collaborative design workshops with students and academics to guide the learning design process. This included the assistance with the development of design briefs, storyboards, building prototypes and managing the capturing and reporting of feedback once the learning object was released and used by the student cohort.


What was the most surprising discovery you made during the project?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
That it was much harder to build an online interactive module than expected.  I knew the technical aspects would be time consuming and require specialist expertise, however the background storyboarding and development, took far more discussion and debate than I initially thought would be needed.  This made the whole experience far more valuable as I gained skills I wasn’t expecting to gain!.

Student Voice, Jayshen Arudkumar:
It takes multiple levels of refinement of a specific learning interactive, where we had to continually ensure during the prototype stages that the objective was being fulfilled. Even though we’ve come across the key principles of diagnostic restriction digest throughout 1st and 2nd year, it was surprising to know that we students needed a re-visit of the intricate details within the cloning concept (it was also a learning step for us and served as a good refresher topic).


What advice would you give to other lecturers who are wanting to create learning objects?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
Have a well-developed idea of what you want to produce before approaching anyone else, but then be prepared for that to be drastically changed as time, technical limitations and new ideas are factored in.

Learning Design Voice, Andrew Beatton:
Don’t be afraid of asking your second- or third-year students for their ideas on how to improve parts of your online course. Utilise the skills and expertise of Learning Designers and Learning Resource Developers to help you bring these ideas to fruition.

Student Voice, Jayshen Arudkumar:
Ensure that the concept presented is not oversimplified yet contains digestible and relevant information that challenges the critical analysis and problem-solving capabilities of the students, while retaining student engagement in this interactive and not deviating from the learning objectives. Don’t be over ambitious in what can be achieved in the given time. There needs to be time for careful planning of the initial prototype and further optimisation to produce the final interactive. Recruiting experienced students to take part in the design, planning and development of the project can be very beneficial as their ideas stem from being in a relatable position (to the consensus student population) where they act as an invaluable mediator to gauge the level of difficulty and GUI of the interactive created.


What did you learn from including student partners to co-design activities?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
I discovered a few personal blind spots when it came to explaining concepts to beginning learners, and even to students who had already been exposed to them.  It is so easy to make assumptions that are totally unwarranted, even if they don’t seem like a big deal in the first instance.

Learning Design Voice, Andrew Beatton:
Second and third year students possess a great combination of attributes that contribute greatly to the design process of online learning objects.  They have a solid knowledge and understanding of the subject matter along with a fresh outlook on what it’s like to be learning the subject matter for the first time.


How were the student partners selected?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
Student partners were selected partially on the basis of merit and partially on previous interactions.  I felt it was important to have students who wouldn’t get totally bogged down in learning the concepts and so chew up time that could otherwise be spent on the learning object itself.  Prior interactions also help with student co-creation because you know something about the types of response you are likely to get.  Selecting student partners at random could mean you end up working with a student who doesn’t engage at a sufficiently high level to advance the project in a meaningful way.


As a student, what did you find most enjoyable about working with academics and professional staff? And what were the biggest challenges?

Student Voice, Jayshen Arudkumar:
Engaging with other like-minded students was fun and interesting, where we were able to present our unique ideas of contribution and co-operate to ensure that the 2nd year students were well aided with this interactive program. It was useful to transform experimental concepts from a real laboratory setting to a set of structured visual infographics that can be easily visualised and ‘manipulated’ with online. The initial challenge was coming up with a list of learning objectives for this Diagnostic Digest section within the schematic of the Restriction cloning procedure, where we wanted to incorporate take-home principles to the student’s benefit. Also, the design for an optimised learning object with easy navigation and accessibility within the time constraints was initially a challenge but the collaborative effort led by Dr. Jamie ensured we were in alignment with schedule and deadlines.


How can you ensure that learning objects are engaging and useful for students in a course?

Learning Design Voice, Andrew Beatton:
Always keep the student perspective in mind. Taking the time to talk with students to get some insights about their learning journey often leads to discovering how the learning experience can be improved and changed to be more useful and engaging.


How will the knowledge that you have gained from this project influence how you teach in the future?

Academic Voice, James Botten:
As noted earlier, I will make less assumptions about student understanding, and focus more on ensuring foundational concepts are fully grasped.  I will also look to generate further modules to build a bank that can be utilised in multiple courses so as to maximise their benefit relative to the resources needed to produce them.


Blog Voices

Academic Voice: Dr James Botten
Dr James Botten is an Associate Lecturer in Microbiology & Immunology at the School of Molecular and Biomedical Science. His research interests centre around understanding students’ understanding and perception of course content, with the aim of improving learning and teaching outcomes.


Learning Designer Voice: Andrew Beatton
Andrew Beatton is a Learning Designer who works with academic staff to create engaging learning experiences using the edX platform, sharing high-quality University of Adelaide learning experiences with new global audiences.


Student Voice: Jayshen Arudkumar
Jayshen Arudkumar is currently enrolled in a Master of Philosophy (Medical Science) at a Genome Editing Laboratory within the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), where they are working on using CRISPR/Cas9 as an effective means of creating novel gene therapeutics for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He is in pursuit of a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) within this scientific field, where he hopes to learn and engage as a medical practitioner through the completion of a Doctor of Medicine (MD) in the near future.


Tagged in Learning Enhancement & Innovation, LEI Grants, Guest Blog, learning design, Student Partnership