The magic of a schema


I’ve never been a fan of flowcharts. When I read articles from some corners of social science research, I tend to skip over the complex flowcharts and read the descriptions instead. I even made this image one day as a joke after wading through an article with particularly convoluted flowcharts, and it’s still tacked to the bulletin board outside my office:

This semester, I’ve learned that even though flowcharts don’t help me understand things, they work wonders for some students.

This past fall, I was talking with Vivian Shyu, one of my fellow Thinq.Studio Fellows about how my students were consistently confused by the steps they needed to take each week in my course. It’s an senior-level course and with the readings, study questions, quizzes, team meetings, revisions, and self-assessments, there are a lot of tasks for students to do each week. Part of the problem is that each team sets their own weekly deadlines for the assignments, and I don’t have the patience to change every assignment deadline in Canvas to reflect their choices — 12 modules x 4 weekly deadlines x 6 teams = too much hassle.

But, I explained, my Modules page was impeccably organized. I’d added long and detailed descriptions of the course structure. There were lists of the steps and sample weekly schedules. I had questions about these steps on a syllabus quiz to help students process the information. I even created a 5-minute video showing the Modules page with a voiceover description of the course structure.

Still, every semester, I’d get panicked emails from half-a-dozen confused students in the first few weeks who couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to do. What was the problem?

Luckily I was talking to an expert in cognitive psychology, because Vivian said: ok, all those resources are great, but are you giving them a course schema? She looked at my list of steps and tasks and said that if she was taking this course, she’d process the information and understand it by creating a drawing of the assignments and steps in boxes and connecting them with arrows: a flowchart.

She explained that a visual representation of the process for each Module could help students understand the schema for the course. With an in-person course, students often know what to expect: they are supposed to show up for class, participate, and complete assignments. In online courses, not only is the process and structure unfamiliar, it’s probably different in every course.

So, I got on and created my first flowchart. I posted it on my Welcome page and again on the first few overview pages for each module.

I’ve been very pleased with the results — there have been fewer confused students this semester! I asked some of them if the flowchart was helpful, and they said that though it takes a bit of time to understand the image, it makes the course structure clear.

I also got a few questions this semester from students about how they should structure their weekly work. Though I already had sample schedules written out in list form, this time I decided that what I need is another flowchart. Here’s the one I made to depict how a student would work on Module 5 (M5) if their team meeting was Wednesdays at 8pm:

Though flowcharts might not have helped me as a student, what I’ve learned this semester is that these kinds of images can provide something important and useful for many students.

About the author

Amy Hasinoff
Amy Hasinoff
Amy Hasinoff By Amy Hasinoff