Context of the Study

The study buddy activity was a voluntary learning activity in a graduate-level, asynchronous, online distance learning course in instructional design (MDDE 604) offered by Athabasca University. MDDE 604 is a required course for the Master of Education (Distance Education) as well as the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate and Diploma in Instructional Design programs offered through the Centre for Distance Education (CDE) at Athabasca University (AU). It is an elective for two other post-baccalaureate programs in the CDE as well as other faculties at AU.

Course description.

MDDE 604, Instructional Design in Distance Education, is the second of two required courses in instructional design for students working to earn one of the credentials outlined above. It is a project-based course that requires students to, over the course of four assignments, propose, design, and create a unit of instruction utilizing the theoretical foundations learned in the prerequisite, MDDE 603, Foundations of Instructional Design: Systems Analysis and Learning Theory. MDDE 604 is delivered as an online asynchronous course over 13 weeks through the learning management system, Moodle™. Assessment is based on completion of four mandatory and sequential assignments, three small group conferences, and the optional study buddy activity.

  • Assignment One (20%): complete a needs analysis and proposal for the instructional unit.
  • Assignment Two (10%): create the design specifications for the instructional unit.
  • Assignment Three (10%): review a peer’s unit from a learner’s perspective and provide constructive feedback.
  • Assignment Four (40%): complete the instructional unit including discussions of the design of the unit, plans for revising and updating the content, student assessment, and the logistics of delivery.
  • There are three conferences (two asynchronous and one synchronous) that together comprise the remaining 15% of the final grade.
  • Students who complete the requirements of the optional study buddy activity can earn up to 5% extra to be added to their final grade.

Rationale for and structure of the activity.

A significant component of the context of the activity is the instructor’s rationale for including the activity in the course. His rationale is summarized below.

Students in MDDE 604 are most often mid-career professionals with very busy lives outside of their studies including full-time employment, families, and various community responsibilities. They are often returning to school after working for a number of years and may not be entirely comfortable writing at a graduate level, although this course can only be taken if the student has previously passed at least one other graduate-level course. The nature of online distance learning is such that it can often be a lonely and isolating experience.

The initial impetus for the activity was to provide a way for students to have their work previewed prior to submission to the instructor who found that he was spending too much time grading papers which were below acceptable academic standards for a graduate-level course. The instructor found that there were too many careless errors such as spelling mistakes and poor grammar as well as evidence that the assignments were rushed and not carefully considered prior to submission. The instructor thought that the students were somewhat unaware that they were more capable writers than was evidenced in their assignments and that they just needed a little proofreading and feedback to help them achieve greater success in their writing. The instructor’s previous research into cooperative learning strategies led him to consider the study buddy activity as a way to address these issues and incorporate a small-scale peer review process into the course while maintaining individual accountability. The voluntary nature of the activity and the extra credit for completion were due to the fact that the activity requires extra work for already busy students.

While there is little prescribed structure for the activity, the structure that is there is designed to increase the chances of success for study buddy partnerships. For example, those who consider themselves “bunnies”, who like to complete their work well ahead of schedule, and those who consider themselves “bears”, who typically work closer to assignment deadlines, are encouraged to find partners who are similar to themselves to avoid conflict related to the timing of the peer review process. Furthermore, the structure is intended to help those who might otherwise be unwilling or reluctant to reach out to others in the course.

The study buddy activity requires students to find a partner in the class with whom they will exchange assignments a few days prior to the assignment deadline for the purposes of providing constructive feedback. Students who complete all the requirements of the activity can earn up to an additional 5% towards their final grade. The activity is introduced to students in the course with the following description (Richards, personal communication, January 3, 2013):

Up to five additional points can be earned by pairing up with a classmate and reviewing each assignment before it is submitted to the instructor.

A short (1-2 page) reflection on the activity is due at the end of the course. You will be “audited” and asked to submit your review work in order to get the bonus marks (nothing for free these days). The reflection should answer questions like: How did you choose your Buddy? How did you organize your work? What were the positives and negatives you experienced? In what ways did it improve your learning? Would you recommend it for the next course? Please add any suggestions for improving this activity.

The instructor leaves it up to the students to organize themselves into pairs and after the first week of the course, posts the following announcement or one similar:

Week 1 Instructor Announcement – hints for success in the course:

Find a good Study Buddy and work together to improve each other’s work. While the buddies’ commitment is to exchange & proofread assignments 3 days before the due dates (to have time to make fixes) most buddies end up discussing assignments at the beginning, middle and end. (I’ll send more info on the study buddy bonus later).

After the third week, the instructor posts another announcement:

Study Buddy Reminder

Just a reminder that Wednesday is your last day to find a Study Buddy partner (because Assignment 1 has curmudgeons, to be exchanged 3 days prior the due date). Study Buddy is not for everyone, procrastinators and short cutters tend not to fare well. But when sincere bears match with bears and bunnies with bunnies it tends to out a whole new spin on learning at a distance.

Occasionally, a study buddy partnership does not work out so the instructor allows participants who might unwittingly find themselves without a functioning partnership to back out and find a new partner. There was one case in this investigation where the instructor needed to help a stranded partner find a new partner.

An advantage of an activity like the study buddy activity is that it is a structural element of a learning task and can be employed in a wide variety of disciplinary contexts and learning tasks. Showing empirically the study buddy activity to be a structure that tends to promote deep approaches to learning as well as social engagement would be of significant benefit to instructional designers, teachers and administrators and perhaps the apparent contradiction between the work of Arum et al. (2011) and Kuh (2001) could be resolved.