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Making Self Study an Explicit Part of all Maritime Training – Part III

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on May 5, 2014

This article is the third in a short series of articles discussing self-study in maritime training. Self-study helps to equalize different trainee backgrounds, abilities, and knowledge, and can improve the quality and depth of training outcomes. This third article presents specific techniques for integrating self-study into your maritime training.

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Making Self Study an Explicit Part of all Maritime Training – Part III


This article is the third (and second last) in a short series of articles discussing the huge, but often ignored benefits of self-study in maritime training. Self-study helps to equalize different trainee backgrounds, abilities, and knowledge. It creates time for reflection and deeper learning beyond the boundaries of the course. And, most importantly to some, explicitly supporting self-study as a part of a maritime training course or program can improve the quality and depth of training outcomes - simply producing better trained trainees.

The first article introduced the idea of self-study and began to discuss how the deliberate and explicit incorporation of self-study into a maritime training program can yield excellent results in terms of improved learning outcomes, better alignment with a wide range of trainee learning styles, and higher trainee satisfaction. The second article picked up where the first left off to discuss how explicit attention to self-study helps turn trainees into active learners rather than passive receptacles of knowledge, how it enables the exploration of new and varied interests, how it allows critical time for reflection, and how it can leverage the effectiveness of the trainer by the use of the "flipped classroom" model.

We will now continue the series in this third article by looking at specific techniques for integrating self-study into your training program. But before diving into some concrete (and easy to implement) examples, let me be clear that you are limited here only by your imagination. In this new world of technology-enabled training, we are all pioneers. And although there are some outstanding examples of how technology can help improve training outcomes and experiences (such as by increasing opportunities for self-study), there is so much more to discover. So take the examples below as a starting point. We all, including you, have something to contribute. Never be afraid to experiment and share your experiences. Everyone benefits.

So – let’s now move on to examples of how to improve your training by integrating self-study into your maritime training programs.

Concrete Applications of Self Study in Maritime Training

One great thing about self-study is that there is a huge variety of ways to incorporate it into your training. And all of them are going to be effective. Because of this variety, it has always been my experience that students/trainees are hugely appreciative of the opportunity to engage in self-study. They do some form of it anyway, but having it as an explicit part of the training program and acknowledging its place by awarding grades for it (and/or having them share it with the rest of the class), adds a novel element to an otherwise routine training experience. It is one they will remember, and is an aspect of my teaching that my students comment most positively on. Let’s look at some examples of how to make it a part of your own maritime training.

The “Anything” Assignment

One of my absolute favorite applications of self-study, and one I have used over and over again in the courses I’ve taught is the “anything” assignment. What’s the “anything” assignment?

Well, to begin with (as you have guessed), it is an assignment. So like any other assignment, it has a write up for the students to follow, it has a deadline, and it will be scored and have a grade assigned to it. But unlike “normal” assignments which have specific instructions on what is to be accomplished, the requirements are for the trainee to do “anything” they like. Now the “anything” has some restrictions. First of all, it must be focused on the topic of the course being taught. In addition, I give them general guidance on how much time they should devote to this assignment. And sometimes, if the format of the course provides the opportunity, I require the students to make some form of presentation to the class on their work. This presentation may be an actual stand-up 5-minute talk, or possibly a poster-board style of presentation. The possibilities are endless.

When I initially started giving this kind of assignment, I would require that the students receive my approval for their chosen project before beginning. But over time I found that to be a generally unnecessary step – the removal of which gives the students even more of a feeling of autonomy and tends to increase creativity.

Whenever I give this kind of assignment, there is an audible “this is great” murmur that goes through the class (assuming it is a face-to-face class). They *love* it – especially those students who care about their training and want to get the most out of it. In fact, while this kind of assignment is very effective at engaging a large breadth of students, it is also very effective at identifying those who really are not motivated or passionate about their studies. And why wouldn’t most students be far more excited about this than any other assignment they receive? This assignment allows them to focus on something which interests them directly. It is a challenge to their creativity. And it is simply fun – which is one of the strongest motivators for highly effective learning. In every case that I have given this kind of assignment, the work done by the students is uniformly far deeper and more creative than for any standard assignment I’ve given. And by adding the presentation component to the end, if you are able to do so, it introduces the natural desire to compete and stand out – thus motivation the leaning even more deeply.

This kind of assignment is the perfect example of concrete attention to self-study. It facilitates student-centered learning; the path of which conforms to the student’s interests, proceeds at the pace and depth which suits them most closely, and provides a kind of learning that simply cannot be achieved in class. From the perspective of the instructor (my perspective), I am constantly amazed at the creativity and depth of work done on these kinds of assignments. The work often goes well beyond the suggested time allocation – for the simple reason that the students are having so much fun with it – so much fun learning! This is how learning should be – an activity where time has little meaning – only outcomes are relevant.

One argument which may have occurred to you against this style of assignment is that it creates some non-uniformity of learning outcomes across the students in the course. By definition, each trainees is going to learn something the others will not know. Also, if all assignments were “anything” assignments, some trainees would not have had experience with some of the specific topics you need to train them on. You are correct, but this is not an argument against this kind of assignment. It simply means that not all of your assignments should be “anything” assignments. For my courses, I tend to have only one of these open assignments in the course – often left as the last assignment. Leaving it to the end of the course means they have had exposure to most of the course topics already and are well positioned to both choose a topic of interest and execute on that idea.

And finally, I feel that it is the duty of every instructor and every course to not only teach the specifically required topics, but also to prepare the trainee for the next step of learning about those topics. The “anything” assignment helps them to discover their passion for the topic of the course and sets them on a path of lifelong learning about it. This last point is very important. In maritime training we are often very focused on the 10 or 20 specific bits of knowledge the trainees need to become proficient seafarers. This is necessary as missing one of those bits may create a safety hazard for that mariner and his or her coworkers. However, by ignoring the duty (in my opinion) to allow each trainee the opportunity to explore their own interests in the subject being taught, we are missing a huge opportunity to help create a generation of passionate and engaged mariners with a diverse range of interests and expertise. As I say, I believe this to be our duty, not a “nice to have”. The difference between a trained mariner and a passionate & engaged mariner is night and day. Your efforts can help turn the former into the latter.

Independent (But Guided) Research

Another approach which has some of the same benefits as the “anything” assignment is the requirement to have your trainees perform some specific “research” assignment. Here, I am using the term “research” loosely to mean the act of learning on one’s own, in any way they see fit. The way I tend to have used this kind of self-study activity is similar to the “anything” assignment, but the topic is specifically assigned to be the same for all trainees. Where this departs from a more typical assignment is that in this case I leave the method and some of the other details up to the discretion of the trainee.

This form of self-study has some, but not all, of the same advantages as the “anything” assignment. It allows the trainee to learn a topic in the way that most suits them, and at a pace and depth that works well for them. It can also allow them some freedom in how they achieve the desired learning. And while it does not provide the almost complete freedom of the “anything” assignment, it achieves some of these same goals while still assuring relative uniformity of learning outcome. Thus it can be used anytime throughout the term.

To understand how this kind of guided research assignment is different than a more standard assignment, let me use an example to illustrate. The differences are subtle, but important.

Let’s say, for example, your training goal is to make sure the trainees understand the potential negative consequences of incorrectly donned fire-fighting gear. A typical assignment statement might look like the following:

“Read the attached fire-fighting manual and list the 10 worst mistakes you can make when suiting up to fight a fire”. Then for each of those mistakes, provide one paragraph to indicate why it is important that this mistake should never be made”.

This is not a bad assignment. It is specific about the learning that is to be achieved, and it provides the trainees with a specific path to those learning outcomes. But notice that it allows no flexibility in how the learning is to be achieved. All trainees are asked to learn the exact same way and produce the same result format.

Contrast that to a different (albeit longer), more open ended and research-oriented assignment statement along the following lines:

“Determine the most significant errors a firefighter can make when donning his or her equipment. Then, for each of those errors, provide the strongest argument you can make to convince your fellow trainees never to make this mistake. This “argument” can be words, graphics, videos – anything convincing in any combination. You are free to choose as many or as few errors to report on, and are free to use any resources you can find to choose those errors. For example, you might refer to the attached fire-fighting manual, you might go on-line or on-bard to interview experienced mariners, or any other creative means of arriving at your list. Likewise, you are encouraged to be as creative and convincing as you can be that we should never make the mistakes you have listed”.

This second approach, although it takes a few more minutes to write, embraces the ideas (and effectiveness) of self-study by encouraging the trainees to follow the research path they choose, but still achieves a specific learning outcome – namely an understanding of the mistakes that should never be made when suiting up. Notice also that the trainees are asked to arrive at the most compelling argument they can make cautioning against the mistakes they identify using whatever resources they can find. By doing so, they are using their creativity to convince themselves of the importance of their findings. Contrast this to the former assignment statement which simply has them regurgitate the issues listed in the learning materials.

The latter assignment also opens up the possibility for some in-class discussion about the assignment outcomes – perhaps even culminating in a vote on the best articulated and most convincing arguments against certain mistakes. Here, we are leveraging the creative self-study and using its outcomes as a learning tool that the entire class can benefit from. The trainees are guaranteed to remember the highly convincing arguments they and their fellow trainees generated – much more so than they would by a review of a class handout. Again, the difference between the first and second assignment statement is subtle, but the difference in engagement and learning outcomes will be remarkable. All it takes is a little creativity.


We’ve only introduced two techniques thus far. Although they are very good and very effective examples of implementing self-study in a training program, there is much more we can do. Therefore, the fourth and final installment of this series on self-study will conclude by discussing incorporating reflective study, active exercises, and the flipped classroom as ways to introduce and support self-study. If you would like to be notified when that article is available, and have not already done so, please feel free to sign up here.

Until the next article, I’d like to remind you of one of my opening comments in this article. There is so much we can do to improve the effectiveness and enjoyment of the training we provide. It is easy to get stuck in a rut, delivering the same training over and over (I know, I’ve done it). But with only a little effort we can make a huge difference – limited only by our imagination. Our trainees are depending on us, so I encourage you to experiment, have fun, and share your results. Everyone will benefit.

Thanks for reading and keep safe.

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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

Maritime Training: The full library of maritime training articles can be found here.

Blog Notifications: For the latest maritime training articles, visit our company blog here. You can receive notifications of new articles on our company blog by following the blog.

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