FoTT 2010 — Constructivist Course Design: Student Centered Online Learning

Presenters: Arleen Fearing and Marguerite Riley from Southern University Illinois at Edwardsville


  • Identify five factors of the constructivism theory that provides a framework for quality student centered online learning.
  • Specify the use of three learning strategies in an online constructivist designed course.
  • Share evaluation results of these online courses from students.

About 8 years ago, School of Nursing at SUIE added a nurse educator specialty and needed some courses developed for their program. Courses were going to be entirely online (new for them).

Arleen and Marguerite had taught with a distance education model similar to S&T’s, but had never taught a fully online course. They had already become comfortable with that model as well as with WebCT, but were forced by circumstances (switched to Blackboard) to change strategies. They had 38 students for their first online course offering. About 50% had already taken an online course already, while the other 50% had not. Those who had taken an online course were unhappy with their typical experience–lack of consistency, poor organization, etc.

They addressed student concerns from the beginning and decided to offer completely asynchronous learning through an online interface (Blackboard). Many nursing students were distance students and worked long hours at odd times (typical of the medical professions). They wanted their learning environment to be safe, creative, and interactive, all features offered by a constructivist approach.

The desired outcome was a student-centered experience with opportunities for sharing and knowledge application.

Constructivism is the learning theory where learning is active and reflective. Students use their prior experiences to build new knowledge. New knowledge is integrated with their existing knowledge to create a unified framework of knowledge for application. Students “take ownership” of the knowledge. Students also collaborate regularly with fellow students to create the shared knowledge experience. Some students resisted this approach and preferred a more traditional Socratic method of teaching.

Constructivism assumes the learner is mature and self-motivated. Instructor is a guide, facilitator and coach who points the way.

Critical reflection on experience and rational discourse with others is the process for changing meaning.

They used a template for all of their nursing education classes. This has many advantages. For one, there is consistency and continuity between modules within a course and from course to course. It provides all students in the program with a familiar online environment. Learning objectives and experiential learning activities can be quickly developed for each module. The modules correlate with course content outlines.

Arleen passed out a sample template they used to develop each of their courses. It contains some simple fields that can be filled out for each module. It includes goals, experiences, desired learning outcomes, any module resources required, interactive experiences, and more. The “Content Commentary” field was NOT lecture notes–it was information to get the students thinking about the content (self-reflective). “Shared Learning Sessions” were what the students posted after completing the assignments and group activities.

In a Learning Circle activity, each student has a role and each role has a responsibility to contribute. Groups of 4 seem to work best, though 5 or 6 are certainly possible depending on the larger size of the class (38 students were divided into groups of 6 or 7, for instance). Instructors can monitor the Learning Circles and guide students back when they get off track.

Courses also had a “metaphor”, essentially the “prior knowledge” required for a constructivist approach. For instance, one module used the metaphor of building a house. Most people recognize some of the challenges involved in building a house, even if they have not directly been involved in such a large project. Building a curriculum in a nursing education program is then compared to the tasks required in building a house. Building a curriculum and building a house both require a sound, stable foundation, for example.

They concluded their presentation with a video clip from Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating takes his students out into the hallway to illustrate the idea of “carpe diem” or “sieze the day” instead of simply opening up their textbook to read a poem or two. This is very much a constructivist approach to learning, drawing upon the students’ prior knowledge to introduce them to Walt Whitman and other great poets.