The project is based on the Academic Writing Course at D-MTEC
The idea for the redesign of the Academic Writing Course was conceived before the pandemic but implemented during it, in autumn 2021, with the help of the Innovedum fund. The course used to contain only synchronous elements: we distributed course materials via Moodle, and learning occured in class. In the new design, synchronous and asynchronous elements complement each other, opening up divergent learning paths.
Core concept: Choice. The key idea for the course design was to make the concept of choice central in the learning process. The assumption behind this decision was that making choices fosters student autonomy and helps students assume responsibility for their learning. In particular, we offer a range of options in the following areas:
- Topics (to tailor the course content to the students’ individual needs)
- Learning organization (individual or group
- Learning times (synchronous or asynchronous)
- Learning methods (flipped classroom, task-based learning, the traditional input–practice method)
- Learning environment (online or in person)
As choice and autonomy are also at the heart of the gaming experience, we implemented our autonomous learning approach in a gamified environment.
Gamification was meant to increase student engagement by various means:
- A storyline
- Custom-made visuals
- Gradual unveiling of content
- Levelling up
A point-based system in Moodle, gamification was enabled by the Level up! plugin (https://moodle-app2.let.ethz.ch/course/view.php?id=16383), which allows point-based assessment, customization, and levelling up. By making the online environment appealing and multifaceted, we aimed to motivate students to actively engage with the learning materials and each other.
Interaction and communication
Interactivity has always been a priority in the Academic Writing Course, but with autonomous gamification students receive more opportunities for interaction. Firstly, we opted for a flipped classroom approach with task-based learning for the synchronous elements. This entails that students study before class, and they do collaborative tasks in class. Such tasks may involve, among others, research on specialist topics; planning, drafting, reviewing and revising texts; and conducting expert interviews. Students work in small groups, dividing the work, assuming different roles, and managing the process. They share responsibility for the outcome of their work because they receive points for completed projects as a group. This means that students are invested to motivate each other to actively participate. Secondly, we strongly incentivize students (via the Level up! plugin) to interact on Moodle. Although we also encourage peer teaching and coaching via chat, the use of forums was the students’ preferred way to interact with each other. Despite the popularity of the forums, their effectiveness was slightly compromised by the reward system (see the interview for details). In future iterations of the course, forums will have clearer guidelines to foster meaningful exchanges. Besides forums, students also interacted with each other in student quizzes, albeit to a lesser extent. Finally, to interact with the teacher outside of class, students can use the forums, the Moodle chat, or email. During distant learning, the lecturer experienced an increased volume of written communication from students outside of class.
The recommended learning flow (Figure 1) is structured the following way. Students first study the flipped classroom input and do exercises on Moodle, after which they attend class, where they collaboratively plan, draft, review, and revise texts. They receive feedback on their work both from peers and the lecturer. After class, students can choose to produce a text and elicit (and offer) peer feedback. Finally, they can submit texts for review by the lecturer. We use an external platform, Edword, for the feedback process because Edword helps teachers improve the effectiveness and uptake of comments by offering feedback in a structured manner. Afterwards, students are encouraged to revise their text once more in response to the feedback received. This iterative process (online input, in-class practice, and after-class practice) aims to maximize students’ uptake of the new material. However, this learning flow is only recommended: students can opt in or out at any stage. The only requirement is that students interact with the flipped classroom elements if they come to class. Otherwise, they are welcome to do online preparation and then immediately submit a text for review, or end the learning flow with classroom work.
The course runs on a point-based system: if students reach a threshold number of points, they receive a passing grade. Both synchronous and asynchronous learning is tracked, and students earn points for the effort they invest in their learning. On Moodle, we use the Level up! plugin, which allows not only the automatic tracking of points but also manual additions. Hence, the lecturer adds points for successfully completed in-class projects and various achievements. The emphasis of the new course design on autonomy, interaction, gamefulness, and solving real-life problems fosters several key competencies, including communication, teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking, self-direction and self-management, and analytical competency.
- You have run the redesigned course once. What is your overall assessment so far?
- I think we had a good start. There are, of course, some wrinkles to be ironed out, but the students seem to have liked the course. In the feedback, they expressed agreement with the statement “I’m glad I have taken this course rather than its earlier version” with a mean of 5.3 on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (absolutely agree). This gives me hope that we’re on the right path.
- What do you think went particularly well?
- Students’ feedback was unanimous that the flexibility of the learning environment made a huge difference. Students could optimize their schedules, which helps them hone their time management skills in the long run. In addition, students appreciated the interactive nature of the course. Because of the flipped classroom approach, we spent the entire classroom time on real-life tasks (e.g., planning, writing, reviewing, revising texts), working in small groups. This has led to spirited discussions, which was a joy to watch.
- What was a challenge you did not anticipate?
- That’s easy: the time requirement. Monitoring the online forums, fixing problems, and providing feedback or support whenever needed takes a lot of time. This is much easier in a synchronous setting; with asynchronous elements, you need to be available at virtually all times.
- What do you think still needs improvement?
- Interaction on Moodle occasionally became superficial. To foster interaction, we created forums for peer reviewing tasks and Q&A, where students could help each other. Most students used these spaces as intended. However, some optimized their effort for the number of points earned rather than the learning benefits, so they posted frequent, meaningless comments such as "I agree.” While this response may, under the right circumstances, help a student in doubt, most of the time it’s just an easy way to earn points fast. It’s also hard to decide which “I agree” is meaningless, so more precise guidelines need to be set up before the next iteration of the course.
- What else would you like to implement in the course?
- Quite a few students indicated that they needed downloadable summaries of the Moodle content. We did not anticipate that students would prefer documents to online resources (the course remains accessible on Moodle for two years, so they have access to everything even after the course ends), so I’ll add those before the course runs again.
- What about life after the pandemic? What will you keep from online teaching?
- The flipped classroom approach works great. I delegate cognitively simple tasks to self-study: students read the input and do some exercises on Moodle, which are automatically corrected. This leaves us time to do complex tasks in class, which clearly improves learning outcomes. In addition, I would like to continue working with the online tools adopted in Zoom classes. For in-class collaboration, we use Miro, which makes it easy for me to monitor the work of groups without unnecessarily interrupting their flow. For providing feedback on written assignments, I use Edword. This online platform helps students receive feedback in a structured manner, which increases their uptake of my comments.
- What is your most important take-away? What have you learnt from this project?
- Monitoring is extremely important during distant learning, especially in the case of asynchronous elements. While it’s easy to spot someone in the classroom who is not paying attention, it’s much more difficult in a remote setting to find free riders or students who are falling behind. The lack of face-to-face contact requires additional safeguards to ensure everyone plays fair and receives all the support they need.
- Academic Writing Course
- This course for MTEC master's students will focus on developing and refining students' English writing skills and their understanding of the requirements and conventions of academic writing.
- The course develops a range of practical and transferrable writing skills. Its first aim is to improve the academic writing skills necessary for the successful completion of an MSc thesis. The course provides theoretical input, practical writing exercises, and detailed individual feedback. It is organized into an initial group lecture and eight subsequent workshops.
The group lecture raises awareness about academic conduct, especially with regard to plagiarism. Afterwards, students take placement tests so that the areas where they need improvement can be identified. The following workshops concentrate on these highlighted areas, and feedback on placement tests is integrated into the input and practice during these sessions.
Students can use the skills developed on the course to improve the overall quality of their MSc theses and to produce their thesis more rapidly and efficiently. These skills can also be used beyond the MSc, whether students go on to complete a PhD or to produce reports and other documents in industry.
- group lecture & workshops
- 30–50 students
- Teaching Power:
- 1 expert, several support staff