Do an Online Assignment Out of Sequence to Be More Successful

When Griggs University moved to Andrews University, I joined the team supporting online education at Andrews University. We started moving the Griggs University self-paced online courses from Desire2Learn to Andrews University’s Moodle. In the process, it seemed like it would be a good idea to restrict all the content so that students had to complete the previous lesson before they could go on to the next lesson.

At the same time, I was just getting started with my research agenda. It seemed like a good plan to get data before we implemented this plan, and then analyze the data afterwards.

Out of Sequence Success

However, when I analyzed the “before data”, I found that students who did at least one assignment out of sequence were more likely to complete! It was such a surprising result.

But think about it. If you are working away, and you are stuck, what do you do? Do you stop entirely, or do you do something else and come back to it?

Flickr Creative Commons Photo by xerezh
Flickr Creative Commons Photo by xerezh

Maybe taking a detour once in a while isn’t a bad thing. And maybe as instructional designers we shouldn’t be so obsessive about controlling the learning path of our students. Maybe designing for learner choice would increase the success of our students.

My research article is published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning: The Relationship between Successful Completion and Sequential Movement in Self-Paced Distance Courses. Take a look.

What do you think?

Have you noticed students doing assignments out of sequence? Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think students in a face to face class work on their assignments for the semester always in sequence? Do you think there might be a threshold where too many assignments out of sequence is a problem? What questions does this result raise in your mind? Please comment.

4 replies on “Do an Online Assignment Out of Sequence to Be More Successful”

  1. I can only speak for courses in the workplace, but it is often preferable for us to allow alternate pathways for learners and I would imagine that some of the same issues arise in other learning spaces. For one, as the need to encourage collaboration on projects increases, it isn’t always feasible for people with diverse schedules and/or those in various locations to meet immediately so it is demotivating for the learner who has to wait for their fellow learner(s). If that person can move around to different assignments, they can stay engaged and active and then swing back to the part that requires the other person’s participation. Depending upon the topic, I have also seen cases where a learner has to learn other things before they can fully understand a concept they are stuck on. As Steve Jobs said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Just because we design learning in a linear order, they may not best understand it that way or may need to explore related or peripheral issues to fully get it.

  2. I don’t think this is surprising given what we know about differences in learning styles and strategies, as well as student motivation and engagement. Research has shown that one of the biggest factors in student motivation and engagement is having some level of autonomy over learning. Being able to choose what order to complete assignments in provides the student with that autonomy and so I would think it would lead to a greater level of engagement with the course and therefore a higher completion rate.

  3. I skimmed over your article, but didn’t read it closely or Sequentially…. 🙂

    My gut level response was like your conclusion and do some individualized studies to see possible mechanism for what is happening related to completion.

    I liked the suggestion for “A qualitative study, examining the detail of what types of assignments were involved in the user-driven sequence, in the context of the content of the course, may illuminate the reasons the effectiveness of a user-driven sequence” p. 174

    I also think you are seeing some possible predictive aspect: “Additional factors contributing to successful completion, such as study strategies, levels of persistence and procrastination, and demographics in various situations would provide further insight into student completion in self-paced courses.that these four times could be at play.” p. 174

    As noted by Janet, different learning styles may be a factor:
    1. the teacher thought this was the best sequence for her or his learning, but the student sees a different route.

    It could be a motivation issue:
    2. I am willing to start this task, but not too excited about this one that is supposed to come before it. I will start that next one first and then get momentum to come back to this one. This could be because they are ready to go to the advanced stage now and don’t want to wait for the boring steps leading up to it. It could also be a time issue. a pretask may seem more work.

    This could also be a clarity issues;
    3. I know what the teacher wants on this assignment but not on others. I will go with what I know and wait for clarity on the other.

    It could be an economic issues—this has more points:
    4. The later assignment is worth more than this and I want to do it first to get it out of the way.

    Or, if it matches my life, an amnesia issue

    5. Whoops. did I miss a step. I should go back and do that eventually….

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