The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
Diagramming is a creative process where the context and tools used to create the diagram may hinder or help students in learning both how to create diagrams that represent a situation and how to learn about diagramming and the situation. These tools equally provide opportunities and challenges to tutors in teaching about and assessing these diagrams and providing feedback, particularly for students studying at a distance.
There is a long history of teaching systems diagramming as a ‘thinking and doing’ technique at the Open University and of evaluating the mediating effect of technologies on this technique. A recent manifestation of teaching systems diagramming has been in two mainly online undergraduate modules, T219 Environmental management 1 and T319 Environmental management 2, where students share diagrams with other students throughout the duration of the module, have to work collaboratively on diagrams in small groups for one part of the module and include diagrams in all assignments. This report describes the rationale for this study, the means by which data was collected and how it was analysed. It looked at student postings in online forums; samples of assignments with specific questions about diagramming as a practice; an online survey of students who studied one or both of the modules; and telephone interviews with a small sample of students and tutors.
The study focused on students’ experiences of using diagrams before, during and outside their study of both modules to better understand the main factors that influence their educational value, in particular the part that familiarity, experience and confidence in the technique and the technology played in supporting learning and whether the act of sharing helped or hinders that learning.
It was found that few students seriously used diagrams before their study of the modules; that they were either enthusiastic or sceptical about their value although most said they would use them in future; that the number of diagrams and the technologies used to create and share them were often burdensome in the two modules investigated; and that the group work could provide a better experience for using diagrams but that this too could be blighted by timing and technical issues. In addition many students disliked the mainly online delivery of the two modules, wanting printed books, and would like to have seen face to face tutorials where diagrams could be created and discussed. Open Design Studio has not proved helpful as a sharing technology compared to other modules and more work is needed to understand this and to find a technological solution that does suit students and ALs alike to compensate for the lack of face to face events.