Helping Students Connect the Dots using a Wiki

Visual representation of connecting dots. Image courtesy of Hyperakt.

by Kim Levenhagen, Assistant Professor, Physical Therapy

I love watching how children imitate behaviors they have observed from role models.  They develop their ability to problem solve new experiences by memories and trial and error.  Young children are fearless.  They are not afraid to try new things and make mistakes.  You can almost see their synapses firing as they tackle a new opportunity.  So how do we take the same behaviors we witness in young children and instill them into our college students?  How do we increase their willingness to embrace new experiences to assist in their development?  In addition, how do we assist them in recognizing the importance of scaffolding previously learned information to move forward on the Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains?

I teach in the higher-level courses in the Program in Physical Therapy.  I require every student to have a strong foundation of knowledge prior to coming into the course so I can scaffold new layers of information.  The prerequisites displayed on my syllabus indicate that there is a necessary area of mastery required in order to be successful in the course.  When I review the syllabus at the beginning of the semester, I set the tone that this information will not be taught again but will need to be integrated into current concepts.  This statement is met by a collective gasp from the students.  How could I possibly expect them to remember something from 2 years ago?  In addition, I stretch their own expectations further by requiring them to pull in threads from other courses taught simultaneously in the semester.  In order to achieve the objective of integration of previously learned and current information, I implemented a wiki page to thread key concepts and apply into clinical practice.

A wiki is a website in which a community of users can add and delete content collaboratively.  Wikispaces is a secure dedicated wiki website which remains private until the collaborators are invited by the designer and remains private to users outside of the classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, I met with several colleagues to integrate the wiki assignment across three courses with similar prerequisites.  We discussed our objectives for the assignment and developed a rubric for the students participating.  We created a grading system on SLUGlobal in which we could provide individual feedback to the students as it pertained to our courses.  We assigned four students to a topic/pathology.  The students were required to recall information in discussing the pathophysiology, anatomy, diagnostic tests, pharmacologic treatments, and implications as a physical therapist.  The students were assessed on content, citations, ease of navigation, and grammar.  In our minds, the final product was to challenge the students to collaborate and integrate key concepts necessary to developing their clinical reasoning using technology.

Although the concept and design appeared solid from the onset there were many lessons learned during and after the implementation of the assignment.   The students were hesitant to embrace something new.  Many students commented they did not understand the purpose of the wiki and found the new learning experience and expectations daunting.  The assumption that the students recalled concepts of prerequisite courses was not a reality.  Previous coursework allowed the students to learn information in silos and then purge at the completion of the exam.  We were now asking them to not only recall knowledge but to also integrate the previously learned information with new concepts.  The students were afraid of making mistakes and resistant to trial and error even though the wiki allows students to create, delete, and review each other’s information collaboratively.  I perceived the students did not want the satisfaction of learning but rather how to make an A on the project.  A mid-semester course evaluation revealed the students had a poor understanding of the value of the assignment or why it was meaningful for their professional development.  It is then I had an “aha!” moment.  If I wanted to engage the learner, I would need to explain the “why” or role model the behavior to the students just as I would to a young child.

Therefore, I am implementing several changes after consulting with the students, CTTL, and, my colleagues.  The students will receive a quiz via SLUGlobal before each section to recall previously learned concepts.  Increased detail of the rubric will assist the learner to address the what, so what, and now what.  I will provide concrete examples of cases of why the students need to integrate the information therefore role modeling the value of scaffolding information to enhance problem solving.  In addition, at the beginning of the course the students will have access to a mock wiki page and rubric to model the expectations of the assignment.  Then to enhance the learning experience and help students connect the dots between the learning objectives, the students will role-play the patient with the pathology and the physical therapist working with the patient for their classmates.  This will increase student engagement and to value the importance of the information for clinical practice.

The wiki process is not yet perfect but neither is life.  If I continue to model for the students how to adapt to new learning experiences and I continue to integrate and scaffold prior learning concepts with new ones to guide students towards greater success in problem solving, I will assist the students in their development as scholars and professionals.  We want our students to learn and take their classroom experiences into their professions.  We can assist our students to be fearless and take chances to embrace new learning experiences; they often just need to be shown “how” and “why.”

Kim Levenhagen is an Assistant Professor in the Physical Therapy and Athletic Training department. She serves as a Faculty Fellow for the CTTL and she assists with developing, implementing and assessing Center programs on clinical teaching and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Her areas of interest and expertise include clinical education, scholarship of teaching & learning, service learning, and integrating reflection assignments into teaching.

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