Step Four: Structural Description

The structural description, according to Creswell (2007), is a description of how the phenomenon occurred and in what setting.

The phenomenon that is the basis of this investigation is called the study buddy activity that is included as a voluntary component of MDDE 604: Instructional Design in Distance Education at Athabasca University. MDDE 604 is required for graduate students in the Master of Education (Distance Education), the Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Instructional Design, and the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Instructional Design programs. The course also attracts a number of non-program students, particularly nurses, who take it as an elective for their own program. MDDE 604 has as a prerequisite course MDDE 603: Foundations of Instructional Design: Systems Analysis and Learning Theory.

Summary of the activity.

Each study buddy participant was first to find a partner who agreed to work with him or her for the duration of the course. Three days prior to submitting their first assignment, the study buddy partners exchanged drafts of their work and they were each responsible for providing critical feedback to their partner based on the requirements of the assignment. Upon receipt of the feedback, and prior to submitting their final draft, each partner then had the opportunity to incorporate, or not, the feedback that they had received. The study buddy partners engaged in this same process in each of the remaining assignments in the course. Finally, they provided a brief written reflection on their experience along with samples of their exchanges in order to receive the bonus marks.

The study buddy activity was a cooperative learning activity introduced specifically for the purpose of generating task-focused student-student interactions to encourage deeper approaches to learning and more critical thinking among distance learners. Although students were cautioned that work habits could make or break a study buddy team and “quick working bunnies” should avoid matches with “procrastinating bears,” no additional structure was provided with respect to how the study buddy partners should interact with each other during the study buddy activity. In reviewing several terms of study buddy reports, Richards (personal communication, 2012) noted that not all pairings work well, but for the majority that do, the learners reported improved on-task focus and a better understanding of the content. In some cases, study buddies have gone on to enroll in other courses together and continue to study cooperatively. He suggested that the study buddy activity be encouraged for other online courses.

For a more complete description of the context of the study buddy activity, please see Chapter I.