With many questions surrounding what 2021 will look like for the Higher Education community, it can be hard to know how to plan for the coming year. Whether we see a return to campus, fully online semesters, or something in between, it is important to be prepared for all possibilities. The blended learning model may be the answer academics are looking for. Giving you the flexibility to move between face-to-face learning and online, it allows for the best of both worlds. 

We spoke with Senior Lecturer of Materials Science at UNSW Sydney, Dr Judy Hart, to hear about her experiences teaching, using blended learning and her tips on using it to engage students.

We hope this guest post provides you with insights and inspiration to incorporate blended learning into your own course.

Judy Hart

Dr Judy Hart
Senior Lecturer in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at UNSW Sydney

I went into a career in scientific research because I love an intellectual challenge and solving problems – and I love the intellectual challenge of my teaching just as much as my research. I constantly puzzle over questions such as why do my students struggle with this concept? How can I make this concept easier for my students? How can I get them excited about learning?

Even after several years of teaching a course, I continue to tweak and refine my approach to answer these questions, introducing demonstrations and examples that make it easier for students to relate concepts to their own experience. For example, I have found that first year students really struggle with the concept of Poisson’s ratio – perhaps at least in part because they have never seen the lateral strain under a uniaxial stress with their own eyes, because of course in most practical situations (e.g. a typical tensile test sample), the strain is far too small to see. A simple piece of plastic mesh (of the type used to protect glass bottles during transport) greatly exaggerates the lateral contraction under an applied tensile stress and helps the students to get a visual “hook” for the concept.

“I constantly puzzle over questions such as why do my students struggle with this concept? How can I make this concept easier for my students? How can I get them excited about learning?” 

I teach a first-year introductory materials science and engineering course. In 2018, my colleagues (particularly A/Prof. John Daniels and Dr Caitlin Healy) and I received funding from UNSW Sydney to create digital resources for this and our other first year materials science and engineering courses, providing an opportunity to trial a range of innovative teaching methods.

From my experience, below are my top three tips for engaging students and introducing blended learning:

Tip 1: Blend the classroom to give more time for active learning

I now teach the course in a “semi-flipped” mode, where about half the classes require the students to complete an online tutorial prior to class. Thus, the content is delivered via the online tutorials, freeing up class time for more interaction and active learning.

Apart from anything else, I find this more interactive teaching style to be a lot more fun than traditional lecturing. The trick has been to get the students engaged, motivated and organised to complete the online tutorials before class.

I emphasise to them the benefits to their learning, but I think it has also helped that there is a small number of marks attached to completion of the online tutorials, which must be done before the class starts to get the marks. This is a nice “carrot” for the students – these are easy marks because all that is required is that they reach the end of the tutorial before the start of class.

Of course, it would be nice if the students were intrinsically motivated to learn, rather than motivated by marks, but we have to also be realistic!

student studying at home

“This is a nice “carrot” for the students – these are easy marks because all that is required is that they reach the end of the tutorial before the start of class.” 

Tip 2: Incorporate interactive elements that encourage and allow all students to participate

It needs to be possible for all students to engage in the activities in class, not just the loud, confident students. To achieve this, we use interactive slides. The students can be logged in to the presentation on any device and answer questions throughout the class, which are a mixture of multiple-choice, numerical, click on an image, etc.

After allowing some time for students to answer each question, I show anonymised results on the projector. This provides students with feedback about their understanding and I get immediate insights into whether the students have understood each concept.

student using tablet to answer questions

With evidence that the students have comprehended the material, we can skip forward; if not, I go back over the explanation of the concept again. At UNSW, these interactive slides are available through our lecture recording system (Echo360), but there are many platforms available now that can do this.

Tip 3: Build a culture of community to enhance in-class interaction

Finally, as this is the first materials course the students take in their materials programs, and their only materials course in first year (the other courses are maths, physics, chemistry, etc.), we place special emphasis on building community and helping the students to make friends.

We host pizza lunches and trivia sessions which are scheduled in the students timetables – i.e. they are not optional extras, but an intrinsic part of the course.

In the first class, I share with the students a bit of my personal story – my career path and hobbies – and ask them to share a bit about themselves with each other. I think this emphasis on building friendships and social networks carries across to enhance the in-class interaction, and vice versa.