Article

Breaking Down Barriers in Blended Learning

Nudges and other behaviourally compatible strategies could help address the challenges of learning modes that blend face-to-face and online learning.

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BLENDED LEARNING—A BEHAVIOURAL CHALLENGE?

While online modes of learning have become much more prevalent in the field of corporate training, most businesses and training institutions have not abandoned traditional face-to-face modes in favour of online learning. Instead, blended learning—bringing the best of both online and in-person modes of learning together—has emerged as a popular approach. However, implementing blended learning for adult learners is not straightforward. Even though it enables learning to take place outside the walls of training rooms and grants learners autonomy and flexibility to learn at their own pace and time, blended learning comes with its own challenges.

The Civil Service College (CSC) in Singapore has shifted towards more blended learning in recent years, as part of its efforts to redefine learning. The flipped classroom model is a common blended learning approach used at CSC. This model ‘flips’ the traditional learning experience by first introducing pre-course learning materials (e.g., videos, articles) for learners to engage with in their own time, before they attend in-class sessions to discuss and apply this learning.

Similar to working adults who enrol in corporate training, CSC participants sign up for these courses on their own or are nominated by their supervisors to attend. The challenges arising from blended learning are typically associated with pre-course learning. Compared with in-class sessions, pre-course learning demands more from adult learners, because it requires them to:

• be able to learn independently without much guidance from the trainer; and

• be motivated to learn independently, and to set aside time to complete their pre-course learning.

Blended learning also assumes that all learners will easily adapt to this way of learning and that they have the opportunity (time) to complete their pre-course learning while managing work and personal commitments. From our observations, CSC course participants have been struggling to complete their pre-course learning, with completion rates as low as 11% in some cases. This is an important issue to address, given that pre-course learning can affect learning effectiveness during in-class sessions.

A Behavioural Insights (BI) approach offers a useful lens through which to understand learners’ behaviours and why they sometimes fall short of completing their pre-course learning. A team of officers from CSC’s Institute of Governance and Policy (IGP) and Learning Futures Group (LFG) conducted a study in 2021 to identify behavioural barriers and enablers affecting pre-course learning. Their findings suggest ways to design interventions to nudge1 more learners to complete their pre-course learning.


Compared with in-class sessions, pre-course learning demands more from adult learners.

UNCOVERING DIFFERENT PRE-COURSE LEARNING BEHAVIOURS

A total of 291 participants2 from CSC’s programmes responded to a poll from 17 May 2021 to 16 July 2021, which asked about their ability, motivation and opportunity to complete pre-course learning.3

Respondents indicated “agree”, “disagree”, “pass” or “undecided” on 27 statements (e.g., “I usually complete my pre-course learning”). Respondents could also contribute their own statements for others to vote on.

Using the COM-B model for behavioural change, each poll statement was designed to uncover one of the three factors (Capability, Opportunity and Motivation) of Behavioural change (see Figure 1):4, 5

The study identified three main opinion groups based on how likely they were to complete their pre-course learning. The Most Likely Group was the largest (51% of all respondents), followed by the Moderately Likely Group (29%) and lastly, the Least Likely Group (19%) (see Figure 2). Unsurprisingly, the Least Likely Group struggled with the most barriers from all three components of behavioural change. In contrast, the Moderately Likely Group faced Motivation and Opportunity barriers while the Most Likely Group only faced Opportunity barriers.

Blended Learning_Fig 1

Figure 1. Overview of the COM-B Model for Understanding Behaviour
Source: Figure adapted from S. Michie, M. M. van Stralen, and R. West6


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Figure 2. Opinion Groups Based on Respondents’ Likelihood of Completing their Pre-Course Learning

WHAT'S STOPPING LEARNERS FROM COMPLETING THEIR PRE-COURSE LEARNING?

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CLOSING THE INTENTION-ACTION GAP

The CSC study found that closing the intention-action gap was a common challenge for many learners: nearly half of all respondents said that they forgot to complete their pre-course learning despite having intentions to do so. This was further compounded by busyness at work and reluctance of both the Least Likely Group and Moderately Likely Group to spend their personal time on pre-course learning.

What can be done to address these barriers to learning? The following interventions include a combination of what different teams in CSC have tried and possible nudges to change behaviour.

1. Set deadlines for the same week to nudge learners to act “now” instead of “later”

Tu and Soman have found that people tend to think about time in categories (e.g., week, month, year) instead of thinking about it continuously.7 As a result, people are more likely to complete a task with a deadline set in the same week as compared to a deadline set next week, despite having a shorter time to complete it. A CSC study in 2020 found that setting the pre-course learning deadline on the Friday of the same week as the notification email was sent out contributed to increasing the completion rate of pre-course learning.

Nudge to Learn: An Email Experiment to Improve Online Learning Completion Rate for Blended Workshops

Researchers at CSC conducted an email experiment in 2019 to study if behavioural nudges could lower participants’ barriers to completing their online pre-course learning component.

Read More

2. Send email reminders but keep them as simple as possible

It was evident from the 2021 CSC study that learners needed help to narrow their intention-action gap. Furthermore, 59% of all respondents indicated that they needed regular reminders to complete their pre-course learning. Sending simple regular email reminders could help participants narrow this intention-action gap.

3. Set aside time during the workshop for pre-course learning

Not every learner has the privilege to learn in their own time even if they want to. Trainers could set aside protected time for adult learners to complete their pre-course learning during working hours, especially if the learning is primarily for work purposes. Learners would still have some autonomy to learn at their desired pace within the time provided during the workshop, without using their personal time to do so. In the 2021 CSC study, 73% of all respondents agreed that there should be protected time for pre-course learning.

When several CSC programmes incorporated this approach, participants were observed to put in more effort in completing their pre-course learning compared to having them finish the pre-course learning in their own time.

Simple Email Reminders Work Best

An experiment conducted by Iryna Nikolayeva et al. in a blended university course setting tested the effectiveness of sending weekly email reminders to help students overcome procrastination and complete their quizzes.

Read More

People are more likely to complete a task with a deadline set in the same week as compared to a deadline set next week, even if they have a shorter time to complete it.

HELPING LEAST LIKELY GROUP COMPLETE THEIR PRE-COURSE LEARNING

Unlike the other groups of learners, the Least Likely Group faced additional barriers. A number of behavioural interventions offer possible ways to address these.

1. Use social norms

Social norm nudges could be used to encourage the Least Likely Group to complete their pre-course learning, since they tend to be influenced by how they think others behave.

Social Norms Are More Effective than Simple Call-To-Action Messages

A published 2021 study on a leading Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) platform in China sought to determine the effectiveness of call-to-action messages on MOOCs users’ completion of course assignments before the due date.

Read More

2. Highlight the consequences of not completing pre-course learning

A majority of the Least Likely Group indicated that they did not remember much of what they learnt through CSC’s pre-course learning and believed there were no consequences for not completing it. More learners may complete their pre-course learning if we highlight the consequences of not doing so (e.g., “without finishing your pre-course learning, you will find it difficult to understand what is taught in the course”) instead of the gains (e.g., “completing the pre-course learning will help you understand what is taught in the course”).

Research in other educational settings has shown that highlighting losses (consequences) is effective in improving learning outcomes. This is due to a behavioural bias called loss aversion, which refers to a tendency for people to react more strongly to losses over gains of the same amount.8

Loss Aversion Increases the Performance of University Students

Between 2015 and 2016, Associate Professor Ben Smith and his colleagues conducted an experiment in a US university involving 217 students to determine if loss aversion can be used to improve students’ performance.

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3. Improve self-regulation

Research has shown that learners with higher levels of self-regulation (e.g., recognising that learning is their personal responsibility) learn more effectively in a flipped classroom.9, 10

Of all the barriers faced by the Least Likely Group, their challenge of learning independently is most worrying. They may find it difficult to self-regulate and make adjustments to their learning process to achieve learning goals.11 Not all learners are homogeneous; we need a better understanding of this group’s challenges to implement pre-course learning better.

Self-Efficacy and Help-Seeking Strategies Affect Self-Regulation

A study published in 2018 by Sun et al. sought to determine the self-regulatory factors affecting learning achievement in a flipped undergraduate Mathematics course of a US university.

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CONCLUSION

Strategies to improve blended learning have been traditionally focused on designing the learning experience, curating the content of pre-course learning and paying attention to how it complements in-class sessions for blended learning. What actually goes into the implementation of pre-course learning has been given less attention. This is sometimes due to our assumptions of what pre-course learning should be (e.g., participants learning flexibly in their own time) and assumptions we have about adult learners (e.g., they can adapt easily to be independent learners).

The 2021 CSC study prompts us to rethink these assumptions and question if current approaches of blended learning are set up for the best outcomes, given the expectation of learning outside of work and the difficulties of balancing work and personal commitments. We should be aware that some adult learners need more help to learn independently: solving this problem is not only about their motivation but their capability as well. Even those with high motivation need help to follow through with their intentions.

For better outcomes, pre-course learning needs to be implemented in a behaviourally compatible way. It is only when we break down the behavioural barriers to precourse learning and find ways to improve the implementation, that working adult learners can fully benefit from the blended learning model. In this regard, behavioural interventions could make a difference.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Charmaine Lim is Lead Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. Her research interests include evidence-based policymaking and behavioural economics.

Mervin Loi is Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. His research interests include evidence-based policymaking and behavioural economics.

Do Hoang Van Khanh is Lead Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. Her research interests include evidence-based policymaking and behavioural economics.


NOTES

  1. Nudges are ways to design the context or choice environment to influence people’s behaviours in a predictable way, while preserving their freedom of choice.
  2. 95% of the respondents were Singapore public officers and 5% were overseas participants.
  3. This poll was set up on OPPi, a platform that uses Artificial Intelligence to analyse the results. OPPi uses machine learning and advanced statistical techniques to identify and cluster opinion groups based on how similar or different respondents vote. More information on their methodology can be found on their website: https://www.oppi.live/faq.
  4. S. Michie, M. M. van Stralen, and R. West, “The Behaviour Change Wheel: A New Method for Characterising and Designing Behaviour Change Interventions”, Implementation Science 6, no. 42 (2011), https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-6-42.
  5. The Behavioural Insights Team, “Barrier Identification Tool”, https://www.bitbarriertool.com, n.d., accessed August 4, 2021.
  6. See Note 4.
  7. Y. Tu, and D. Soman, “The Categorization of Time and Its Impact on Task Initiation”, Journal of Consumer Research 41, no. 3 (2014): 810–822, https://doi.org/10.1086/677840.
  8. Aurora Harley, “Prospect Theory and Loss Aversion: How Users Make Decisions”, Nielsen Norman Group, June 19, 2016, accessed September 21, 2021, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/prospect-theory/.
  9. C. L. Lai and G. J. Hwang, “A Self-Regulated Flipped Classroom Approach to Improving Students' Learning Performance in a Mathematics Course”, Computers and Education 100 (2016): 126–140, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.05.006.
  10. G. S. Mason, T. R. Shuman, and K. E. Cook, “Comparing the Effectiveness of an Inverted Classroom to a Traditional Classroom in an Upper-Division Engineering Course”, IEEE Transactions on Education 56, no. 4 (2013): 430–435, https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2013.2249066.
  11. P. R. Pintrich, “The Role of Goal Orientation in Self-Regulated Learning”, in Handbook of Self-Regulation, eds. M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, and M. Zeidner (Academic Press, 2000), 451–502, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012109890- 2/50043-3.

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