To be successful, students have to know what and how to learn, as well as how to manage course and life demands. Dr. Alison Flynn, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, recognized a need for a resource to help students:
- Manage their course and life goals and demands;
- Deal with failure in school, as well as personal and professional life challenges; and
- Identify what they already know and what they need to learn.
To empower and equip students for better learning, Professor Flynn worked with a team to create the Growth and Goals module as an open educational resource (OER), available in English and French, for adoption in and adaptation to any course.
Dr. Flynn led a University of Ottawa team working on the creation of the OER, including the Centre for e-Learning and the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services, and Emily O’Connor and Kevin Roy, student leads on the project. This is Dr. Flynn’s major project as Chair in University Teaching.
The Growth and Goals module allows faculty, regardless of their subject specialty, to adapt it for their students’ use, offering resources, exercises and guidance focused on three key components:
- Self-Regulated Learning
Providing the students with skills and strategies to:
- Reflect on their learning needs and goals;
- Plan how to address these needs, including skills such as creating a schedule; and
- Act and move ahead with their plan.
- Growth Mindset
Helping students to develop an approach that recognizes areas of knowledge and skills where they may not be well informed or capable at the moment, but in which they can work towards improvement and mastery. This involves recognition of failure as being not the end of a process but the start of the learning.
Helping students identify what they know and what they don’t know, and how to go about learning what they need to know.
While the module is integrated throughout a course, the bulk of student work is done at the beginning with text, videos, and exercises to support goal setting, scheduling, and planning for what they want to accomplish.
The section on dealing with failure offers examples of projects that have gone through innumerable prototypes and learning from failure – such as the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the space program. The purpose is to help students fail safely and avoid seeing it as the end of the process. Instead, they are encouraged to seek help and grow from the experience. Rather than being beaten by failure, they develop resiliency in the face of course and life experiences.
The first version of the Growth and Goals Module was piloted in five courses in 2017. One key learning from this first iteration is that in the courses in which students are awarded as little as a one-mark bonus for completing the module, completion rates are over 75%. In courses with no mark incentive for completions, participation starts at about 30% of students, with completion rates falling as low as 0%.
The module is now in its second version, evaluated and improved through an ongoing practical, participative process that includes students, professors, the Centre for e-Learning, Student Academic Support Services, and administrators so various voices offer multiple perspectives. The team meets regularly to set up questions for the surveys and focus groups to gather student input. Research questions look at student success, engagement, self-efficacy beliefs, experiences, and resources required.
The Growth and Goals Module OER is readily available. It is licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA, meaning that all are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, as well re-mix, transform and build on the material, with attribution and for non-commercial use only. The links below include English and French instructions as starting points and the module itself. Programming skills are not needed to adapt the module; faculty report needing 2–5 hours to prepare it for use in their course.
Benefits and Outcomes
Student responses in the research were strongly positive:
- 82% believe the module improves their learning; and
- 79% would recommend it to a friend.
Of the 1,656 students who used the module, 80% reported it was the first time they were offered this type of training. The topics were familiar to some, but they had not had the opportunity to build their skills in a concrete fashion.
Written input in the questionnaires offer substantive (average of 55 words) comments on its usefulness for course and life goals. Students could also participate in focus groups in which researchers could get feedback on issues beyond use measures:
- The time required for module completion is reasonable;
- Completing the module has a positive impact of awareness of their own knowledge – both what they know and what they don’t know;
- Results in a better understanding of how to use learning objectives, including the idea of focusing their study efforts in their areas of weakness;
- Skills and strategies developed in this module are transferable and used in other courses. A follow-up study is investigating this transfer of learning;
- Students report individual experiences, such as “I used it more in other courses than this one, mostly the study techniques, like making a schedule.”;
- “It was hard to write down things I wasn’t good at. I’m glad I did, though, because later in the module I made a plan to improve those things.”;
- “I like that a growth mindset makes you realize it’s okay to make a mistake and fix it later on.”; and
- “When I put a zero for a learning outcome rating, that really made me think and work on that thing.”.
Students in focus groups say they want to learn how their peers deal with failure. The module suggests study techniques and strategies used for successful learning and professors are encouraged to discuss and share experiences and responses to failure in class or on discussion boards.
Based on input from students during the initial planning stage, the module is designed to be integrated into a course, as they did not want an additional task outside of their course. The module is not required, although awarding even minimal marks for completion has a positive impact on completion.
Professors report adaptation and integration of the module, along with student feedback, encouraged them to focus on providing clearer and actionable learning objectives.
Challenges and Enhancements
In the pilot version of Growth and Goals, one of the exercises required students to rate their abilities against course learning goals just prior to taking the mid-term exam. In addition, they reported what they used to assess this knowledge level – self-testing, having explained the concept to peers, intuition about their learning level or other ways of checking their own knowledge. After the mid-term exam, they were asked to reflect on how the exam went, how closely their assessment of their abilities matched the exam, and what they might do differently next time or continue to do as it was successful for them. In evaluations, students reported the exercise was too long and demanding while they were also studying for exams. The exercise now focuses on reflection after the mid-term and there are no further complaints. In addition, after the final exam, students are encouraged to think about how what they learned from the module and how those skills and strategies can be applied in other courses.
Faculty from all colleges or universities in Ontario and beyond are encouraged to adapt this open educational resource for use by their students, as well as to participate in its evaluation and improvement. Further information is available at
Looking at student usage to date, team member Kevin Roy identified that students’ ability to assess their abilities and knowledge improves throughout the semester; he is investigating how and why this occurs, as well as how it can be encouraged and supported.
Research continues on issues such as barriers to module use, why some student chose not to use it and how the module is useful (or not) to students in a variety of courses and learning situations. The input of multiple faculty members from different disciplines and institutions is invaluable for this study.
Program directors asked the module be designed to be integrated into a complete program, with students completing the basic and core components at the start of their programs, with the remaining elements woven throughout subsequent courses. The aim is to provide a cohesive and comprehensive experience. Preliminary discussions on how this might be achieved are underway.
In addition to the ongoing research and module improvement, the team is looking at how to encourage and support faculty members to adapt and use the Growth and Goals module through workshops and other strategies.
For Further Information
Dr. Alison Flynn
Chair in University Teaching
Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences
University of Ottawa