Support ‘time on task’ and deeper learning


This case study looks at the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience module ran by Dr Shirley-Ann Rueschemeyer in the Department of Psychology. It involved third year undergraduates, a group of about 50 students, and focused on how lecture and seminar content was supplemented by weekly group activities and the collaborative creation of an ‘online textbook’.

Keywords: student content, group work, formative tasks, blogs, wikis, google sites

Screenshot of task boxes and online textbook in the VLE

Aims and Objectives

Students were reluctant to explore the subject beyond the material provided in face to face sessions (lectures and student presentations delivered in seminars) regarding lecture content as the primary source of information rather than a springboard for self-directed, deeper learning. An indicator of the student desire for “spoon feeding” was their increasing demands for more detailed and comprehensive lecture notes to be provided by the lecturer though the VLE, with clear implications not just for active student learning but also for staff time.

Although this module (and many others at this level) should require students to engage critically with primary research material, there was little evidence that this was taking place. The lecturer was looking for an approach that would encourage deeper engagement with the subject, support student “time on task” and encourage students to take more responsibility for their own active learning (Chickering and Gamson, 1987) .


Students were divided into seven groups and required to engage with one of seven weekly tasks which built on and extended activity in face to face teaching and also required independent study and research. The tasks were rotated each week so that by the end of the module each group would have completed each task once. Through completion of the weekly tasks, the students built up a comprehensive resource for each topic that was compiled in the form of an online text book and shared with the cohort.

Weekly tasks;

  1. The group of students who delivered the weekly presentation were required to;
    • Upload presentation resources from student led seminar.
    • Summarise and reflect on discussion within the seminar.
    • Compile, synthesise and edit outputs from all other tasks into online text book.
  2. Provide a summary of the lecture, extracting main themes and concepts addressed (500 words max).
  3. Provide a summary of/critical reflection on selected weekly reading (500 words max).
  4. Formulate an open question for the topic.
  5. Provide an answer to the open question from the previous week.
  6. Write 4 MCQs with answers for the topic.
  7. Prepare for following week’s student led seminar.


This approach required careful planning, set up, introduction to students and integration with face to face activities.

  • Planning – significant care was taken to design the group work schedule which could integrate with the timetable for student presentations. Once this had been completed, it was made available to students along with more detailed instructions and rationale for each task.
  • Set up – separate online spaces (group blogs) were created for the appropriate weekly tasks which were labelled as “task boxes” for the students. A wiki was used to compile the outputs of the weekly tasks into a single online resource with a separate page for each topic. This technology used has recently been updated to take advantage of improved formatting and usability of Google sites (see reflections below).
  • Supporting students – students were introduced to the weekly group work element from the outset of the module, emphasising the importance of these activities to the way that they would learn in this module. Roughly half an hour was provided within the timetabled 2 hour seminar slot for groups to begin their weekly activity with the expectation that it would be completed outside of class time, by 5pm on Friday of the same week. Simple technical training and induction was provided in the first in-class session to ensure all students were familiar and confident with using the online tools and understood how the tasks were linked.
  • Ongoing management – outputs were monitored to ensure students were engaging and where appropriate feedback provided to clarify or correct. Formatting issues with the online tools resulted in greater staff intervention than originally intended to support the compilation of the online text, though measures to address this have been taken for subsequent years by moving from VLE native blogs and wikis to Google tools.


The initiative has been very successful in achieving its initial goals of encouraging students to be more active in their own learning throughout the duration of the module and less reliant on academic staff to give them all the answers and provide their resources for them.

“The weekly assignments… kept me on task amid a lot of other commitments…. They also greatly facilitated consolidation of each seminar’s content, which meant that when I came to revision for the exam, it was more of recalling the content than re-learning it.”

While response rates to the focused survey on the use of technology were relatively low (n=7), student feedback has been positive, highlighting a number of key areas with implications for transferability;

  • 100% respondents report that VLE was effective or very effective in supporting learning on this module.
  • 85% of respondents report that group activities were effective / very effective in supporting understanding of weekly course content.
  • Respondents reported that “teacher-led tasks” (summarising the weekly lecture and reading) contributed more to their understanding of the module than “student-led tasks” (summarising in class discussion and developing/answering open questions).
  • Respondents reported slightly higher perception of the effectiveness of CONTRIBUTING to the online text book (4.14 / 5) compared to ACCESSING it for revision (3.85 / 5).

“I think it’s the process of doing the task that was more useful (as compared to using it solely for revision), as tasks such as formulating an open question and answering it made me really think about the issues and concepts involved.”

The use of technology on the first two iterations of this approach was on the whole successful with all students able to complete the online tasks and share the outputs. However, the module leader noted that problems with printing and formatting, particularly when copying content from Word processed files during the compilation of the online textbooks meant that many students were unable to complete this activity. As the production of the online textbook was seen as being a key output, staff took it upon themselves to complete this activity and also manually produce printable versions. This issue has been addressed by moving the activities to Google sites with more robust formatting capabilities and “Announcement” page types that streamline the process of compiling multiple contributions into a single output.

Significantly student engagement with the weekly tasks was high throughout the module, highlighting a number of transferrable approaches for supporting student engagement in blended learning (see below).

Transferable lessons learned

Student engagement in online activities was supported in this module through a combination of a number of factors:

  • High expectations for participation from staff – this did not necessarily translate into a significantly increased workload in monitoring and providing feedback on individual contributions but staff made it clear from the outset that participation was an expected part of the module.
  • Links to face to face teaching – many of the weekly tasks built on earlier activities in lectures and seminars. Although some of the more “student led” activities may have been more effective in supporting deeper understanding of the module content, explicit links to face to face activities helped to align the weekly tasks with the module as a whole and exploited the widely held student perception of the high value of contact time (QAA 2013).
  • Create space in face to face teaching – helped to reinforce the value and expectations of the activities. Simple technical induction and sacrificing a small amount of time within the seminar helped to avoid many of the motivation and organisational issues commonly associated with group work.
  • Clear instructions and deadlines – although there were numerous concurrent tasks through the module, students were clear on what they were expected to be doing and by when allowing them to focus on the weekly activity.
  • Clear benefits to students – the end result of the online textbook to support revision indicated the tangible benefits to students for participating and the alignment to the exam based assessment
  • Rotating activities – providing students with a different task each week helped to maintain their interest throughout the module and encouraged groups to review how others had attempted similar activities.
  • Group activities and peer motivation – although group work can bring its own issues, in this instance students seemed to have been motivated by their own group and by the collaborative nature of the interlinked tasks.

Next Steps

First published: April 2014. Last updated: Dec 2017

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