A recent article in the Chronicle reported on issues identified by college administrators and faculty as they contemplate the future of higher education. Two arguably important issues - whether teaching methods should be derived from modern learning (and, separately, the evaluation sciences) - were not mentioned by any professional participating in the survey. Both of these issues have direct impact on the effectiveness and efficiency with which institutions of higher education fulfill their primary mission – teaching (presumably well). Part I examined current teaching behavior, practices tracing to models stabilized in 1906. Part II examined changes in the current teaching environment that increase the importance of doing a better job of teaching and evaluating learning. This Briefing identifies a few of the most effective and easily implemented ways that the learning sciences can be applied to college classrooms, physical or virtual. Part IV will examine practical implications of applying modern evaluation sciences to how we assess learning.
Applying Learning Sciences
Incorporating the modern learning sciences into one's teaching behavior produces almost immediate benefits and is not particularly disruptive. Faculty and students report higher levels of engagement and enjoyment, more is learned in less time, and what is learned is more behaviorally useful. As I pointed out in previous Briefings, many of those who teach already incorporate the relevant scientific findings and generalizations into their teaching practices; some do so knowingly and systematically, others arrive at science-based practices through experimentation and being sensitive to the needs of students and what methods seem to meet them best.
If you are involved in or track progress in the relevant sciences, you know that the links between findings, generalizations, and classroom behavior are not always direct and that some of the implications for action are contested by experts. This Executive Briefing avoids contested topics in favor of identifying a few well-established science-based practices that students and teachers find rewarding to practice.
Five Generalizations Worth Considering
Right-size (chunk) Learning Objectives
The course, as we know it, came to be a vehicle for teaching a group of related topics over a period of 10 to 16 weeks for a variety of reasons having little to do with learning. Among other things, our then agrarian society played a role.
Unfortunately, course length does not necessarily correspond to how we master and connect learning objectives, especially those at the higher and performative ends of the learning taxonomies. A better approach deconstructs courses into a several self-sufficient units of learning (typically 5 to 15 determined by content) in which each unit contains a performative learning objective and a corresponding set of activities and evaluation points, along with a variety of classifying properties. (It is these properties that guide the assembly of individual learning objects into an efficient path of study.) Under this approach, a course's learning objectives - which may vary from three to 100 - are re-crafted into from five to 15 learning objects (think: containers), each constructed as self-contained units of learning in which the objective is coupled with activities and assessments to accomplish horizontal and vertical learning.
In addition to increasing the amount and speed of learning, chunking what were formerly courses into learning objects confers a number of systems advantages in time-to-degree, scheduling logistics, financial margins, and prior learning assessment.
A question that comes up early when we help programs transform to this more efficient instructional model is, "What about Title IV?" There is no Title IV exposure under this approach. Individual learning objects are simply rolled up to produce a transcripted "course" under the 1906 model. Thinking about this reveals one of many operational and financial advantages of this approach. A given course can be constructed by way of many different combinations of learning objects, thereby making learning more adaptive and efficient both within and across learners.
Embed Horizontal Learning
Content developers and managers, whether faculty or learning and design specialists, seldom embed horizontal (student-to-student and learning team-to-learning team) learning. They should because horizontal learning increases student engagement and provides multiple sources of rationale for mastering the objective; it refines understanding and application upward by detecting and correcting individual errors and shortsighted views and by socializing superior views held by individuals; it lays the foundation for authentic demonstration and assessment of competence. Indirectly, it increases retention. We will write more on this in a future Executive Briefing.
Balance Across Outcomes
Learning, retention, generalization, and hierarchical development (sometimes called scaffolding) are most efficient when the objectives, activities, and assessments address and integrate the cognitive, affective, and performative dimensions of what is being learned. You can think of this as integrating the what, how, why, and how did I do dimensions of learning. The integration of these dimensions is often what we look for as a mark of expertise and is correlated with personal and professional success.
A simple working definition of “authentic” is that the objectives, activities, and evaluations mirror the structure of their non-classroom target application. If we are teaching people how to be managers, authentic evaluations would involve reviews of direct reports (by faculty) and peers (by other students) structured in ways that students will perform and have their performances evaluated in the workplace. Authentic evaluations for engineers would be different and would most likely focus on individual and team work to accomplish engineering projects. Along with other benefits, authenticity contributes to efficient generalizations and direct application beyond the classroom. For the most part, this means that learning activities and evaluations will involve other people and will often have a 360-degree component.
The first question we usually hear when talking about 360 degree components concerns the primacy of the instructor's evaluation. ("You can't have students evaluating learning!") Thinking a little about the 30 or so dimensions of form and content related to activities and their assessments shows that the answer lies in the specifics. If the activity and assessments are focused on fidelity to key learning constructs and competence, student evaluations are significantly less relevant and the instructor's evaluation is primary. If the activity and assessments are focused on the quality and efficiency of horizontal interaction, the instructor's evaluation is secondary. If the activity and evaluation dimensions are focused on the clarity and concision of a presentation, both student and instructor assessments are primary, albeit in different sub-dimensions.
The implications of the modern learning sciences do not reject all common teaching practices. Perhaps ironically, overlearning, an old and largely discarded method of teaching involving repetitive practice well beyond mastery, is supported by the findings of modern brain and learning science research. For certain forms of standardized knowledge (e.g., mathematical functions), overlearning produces benefits superior to other methods developed to date.
What Gets Better with Modern Teaching Methods?
What we know about how to improve learning will continue to evolve, modifying today’s guidance as it should. The ruling reason in this case is not whether we have definitive and uncontroversial guidance from the learning sciences. A better approach is to ask if we have learned anything since 1906 that can be applied to the classroom to produce better learning, including learning that is more efficient.
Even though the above dimensions are generalized and their application will vary somewhat with the nature of the unit of learning, we have applied them in areas ranging from art history to accounting and from business law to literature.
Among the improvements we can expect when we apply teaching methods that exploit the relevant sciences are:
- Reduced time to mastery
- More substantive levels of mastery
- Increased ability to generalize horizontally and vertically
- Increased student engagement and motivation
- Increased retention
- Improved ability to teach others
Any one of these potential benefits can make it worthwhile to change one's teaching practices.