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Learning is A Journey

It’s like trip planning, except with more instructional design #

My takeaway from the Educational Goals, Instruction, and Assessment class taught by Sharon Carver, Fall 2015.

In Fall 2015, I had the chance to take Educational Goals, Instruction, and Assessment class taught by Sharon Carver. The class revolves around applied learning sciences, where we learned things about knowledge gaps, instruction design, and designing research for instructional design, among other things. This post is my takeaway — the big ideas I learned in class. Here, I use the analogy of learning as a journey, where teachers are the trip planners.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Know Who You’re Going With #

Who are your learners? It’s going to be a completely different trip when you’re going with children and when you’re going with teenagers. Identify their context and get to know your learners. It is always important to make sure everyone feels included, and this can only happen if you make an effort to get to know them. Knowing your learners will help you understand and plan how you’re going to help them in learning.

“Teaching occurs only when learning takes place.” — Bain

What are they bringing? #

Realistically, there will be no two learners who are exactly the same. Your learners will differ in development stages, knowledge base, and other individual differences. Some of these you can change, some others you just have to anticipate and accommodate. A learner’s development always changes with time, their knowledge base are relatively changeable, while their individual differences have to do with who they are as a person and are generally stable.

Learners come into your class at different stages of development and domain mastery. Know that you can establish prerequisites (the bare minimum to survive your class), but realize that your learners will still be different in some ways. Figure out these differences; find out how much your learners know by the time you start the class, and determine what would be appropriate to teach them — what would be too easy, and what would be too hard for your learners? Find a comfortable place in between. Strategize what you’ll have to do to help everyone get to (roughly) the same point by the end. Help your learners let go of the faulty knowledge they may have, and help them build on the things that are accurate and appropriate.

Aside from the things you can change, there are also learners’ conditions that are simply who they are. Identify learners by their neuro-developmental profile (there’s also multiple intelligences, but this is the grouping I prefer) and anticipate differences. Provide scaffolds for those you think might lag behind, and push the ones who you think might excel even further.


Where are they going? #

Let your learners know where you’re going. Be explicit with your goals. Similarly, provide time to figure out where your learners are going. Are you going towards the same goal? If you aren’t, what are the goals you have, but your learners don’t agree with? Which of your learner’s goals aren’t you facilitating? Be flexible and accommodating — align your goals with your learners’. Allow some room for changes; instead of forcing a set of knowledge on your learners, see what your learners have and what your learners want. What if you have better things to offer?

It can also be that your learners don’t know what they want out of the lesson. Help them figure it out. Be clear about your goals and help your learners see how they can relate. Show your learners the value of your goals and why your learners should care.


Why Are They Here? #

Learning is learner centered, and in the core of the learners, are their motivations. Remember that all learners are different: some learners take the course with internal motivation, some other with external, some learners have stronger motivation than others, and some learners lose motivation easier than others. It is important to tap into the learners’ motivation and always try to keep it alive.

Three aspects that affect learners’ motivations are competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Learners can easily lose motivation when they realize that the course is too hard or too easy for them. It is important to find a balance in difficulty. Another way to improve students’ competence in a class is by providing structure to your class. This means that you should have high, but reasonable standards for your students and inform them about your expectation. You should also always help them to improve, by giving feedback and guiding them to be better.

Learners, especially adult learners, also have to want to learn in order to actually learn. They need the autonomy of choosing what they get to learn in relation to their subjective value of the goal. Learners will be more likely to be motivated when they feel that what they are learning matters to them–make sure to relate to their prior knowledge and interest. Offer them choices in your lessons, listen to what they have to say, and explain the relevance of their work to their interest and/or real-life situations. These will help in improving students’ autonomy in the class.

Lastly, it is important to have a safe environment in which learners can learn. Treat your learners with respect. It would be motivating for the learner when they feel that they can fit in or that they matter. Going back to what was mentioned in the beginning: get to know your learners. Be caring, warm, and accessible. Making the learners feel appreciated and that they belong will keep their motivation high.


What do they know about their learning? #

Metacognition can be broadly defined as thinking about one’s thinking. More specifically, this has to do with how much the learners know about how they think and what they know. Metacognition is an important aspect of learning, because having a good metacognition skill will help learners become self-regulated learners, for which the ultimate goal is being a better learner in general. This will be more relevant when it’s related to the way learners are achieving their goals.

There are three keywords in metacognition: planning, monitoring, and adjusting. Planning has to do with the processes the learners do coming into the task — for example, this would include task analysis and strategy planning. Monitoring has to do with the learners’ performance and how they think they do in a task — for example, this includes knowing how they’re progressing towards the goal and knowing when to ask for help. Adjusting has to do with how they improve their performance after the task — for example, this includes self-assessment and conscious effort to improve.


Know Where You Are and Where You’re Going #

Where are you, and what are your resources? You are about to lead a group of people on a journey, and you’ll want to know if the trip you’re planning is feasible with what you currently have. In designing your course, aim for something within your knowledge, or, if it’s not within what you’re comfortable doing, find resources to help you with it. Do enough research before you start — find your materials, get to know your domain, and be ready to give and answer questions, because questions will drive learning.

You’re not going to get anyone anywhere if you don’t know the destination. What are your goals? Where are you leading your learners to? Define a clear set of goals: knowledge, skills, and dispositions you want your learners to have, both in the cognitive and meta-cognitive level. Be specific, and prioritize; you can’t force too much in a limited set of time. Know which goals are the core ideas, which ones are important to know and do, and which ones are only worth being familiar with.

Relate your goals to your learners. What would be appropriate for their developmental level? Can their knowledge base handle your goals? Expect the most out of your learners; set your goals high, but realistic. Don’t forget that you don’t really know who your learners are yet — be ready for changes to accommodate your learners. These changes might come in different ways: it could be that you have to make your goals higher or lower than you originally plan, it might be that you need to provide more scaffold than you’ve prepared, or it might be that you should just find the best way to convey the knowledge to your students. These changes don’t necessarily mean you have to entirely scrap what you’ve prepared; it just means that you would adapt to the group of learners that you’re facing.


Keep Your Destination in Mind #

Now that you know where you are going, you should always keep it in mind when you head towards the next steps. Alignment is key. In preparing checkpoints that can help you tell how well your learners are following, make sure that you check the goals you have, and assess the learners’ progress towards that goal. When creating directions you will provide for your learners, use the right map — give instructions that will help your learners reach their goals.


Have Checkpoints! #

Is everyone still in track? Prepare formative assessment to make sure that your learners are still heading towards that same goal you agreed to in the beginning. When your learners struggle and derail, make sure you know! You don’t want to reach your destination and look back to realize half your pack are missing because you fail to make sure they’re still there.

Test is a form of assessment, but not all assessments have to be tests. As long as the assessments are aligned to the goals they’re trying to measure, assessment can take many different forms. Assessment can happen in both natural and structured environment, and can be observed three ways with the Watch! Ask? Review. technique. In watching, you observe what the students do; from their gestures and postures to their participation in class or interaction with others. In asking, you want to take note on what the students say. You might do this through formal interview, or analyze their answers in classroom discussions. In reviewing, you analyze the product of what the students create, without necessarily paying much attention to the process they went through to create the product. Be creative and innovative in creating your assessments, but don’t get lost in the fun and engagement and lose track of where you’re going.

Having formative assessments serves as a way of giving learners a chance to refine their understanding as they head towards the summative assessment. Provide feedback to help them with this. The goal is always to help your learners to succeed. This could also be your chance to find a pattern of success and errors, and see how you can improve both your assessment and instruction. Also keep in mind the differences your learners might have and prepare for different types of assessment to make sure you try everything to find evidence of progress in everyone. Your assessments should cater to multiple goals, use multiple methods, and have multiple contexts of application.

Checkpoints aren’t exclusively designed to know how the students are doing: check how you are doing. When more than half your class fails to perform, maybe it’s not them, it’s you. See what works and what doesn’t, and adapt. Check for your assessment’s credibility, reliability, and validity. Are you assessing the right thing? Is your assessment appropriate for the understanding you’re trying to measure? Provide rubrics that establish how each student’s performance in the assessment will be scored. Remember that there might be multiple different people assessing different students. Create a guideline that is clear enough for any rater to understand and is well-defined enough for different raters to give the same score to the same student.


You’re the One with the Map #

So everyone’s relying on you to show the way. Give them the directions, and make sure everyone hears you. Remember that your learners may have a lot of differences — you might need different ways of instruction, and some learners may need more help than others, so accommodate for it.

Consult Understanding by Design’s WHERETO framework (Why, Where from, Where to; Hook and Hold; Equip and Enable; Rethink, Reflect, Revise; Evaluate; Tailored; Organized) in designing your instruction. First, you need the knowledge of your learner’s current state and a clear goal of how they will be after the course. Then you should have a way to tap into their interest and keep it. Introduce the lesson content and prepare for activities and methods that will help them in following the lesson. Allow time for the learners to reflect on their understanding, and provide ways for them to revise misconceptions. Tailor the instruction for different learners, and organize the sequence of instruction in a way that maximizes engagement and effectiveness of the lesson.

There are different types of knowledge and each type will need different techniques to help learn it. Don’t be stuck with one way of instruction, and use the most appropriate method for each type of knowledge. Consider the three principles of learning process: dual channel, limited capacity, and active processing. Dual channel is the notion that learners receive information through verbal and visual channels, and limited capacity is the notion that both channels have certain limits to how much they can take at one time. Flooding one channel with information will result in cognitive overload, which will hinder learning. Therefore, in deciding on an instructional method, consider distributing the information through both channels. Active processing is the notion that learning occurs when learners engage. Always think of ways to relate your contents to the learners’ interests. If the lesson have higher values for the learners, they are more likely to be invested and actively engage in it.

Some tasks are more complex than others. In helping learners understand a complex task, help them decompose the task into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks. Provide guides and scaffolds so that learners can perform the task components, and allow them enough practice. Once they have learned the components, it is essential that they learn how to integrate the components, and how they will apply the skill they’ve learned broadly. You want the learners to be able to apply the knowledge outside of the classroom — you want the knowledge to transfer.

To facilitate transfer, learners need to realize that the knowledge they learn in class can be generalized to bigger things. They need to know that the knowledge can be applied in various contexts. Show them how that works: discuss the conditions of applicability of the knowledge, provide opportunities to apply the skills in various contexts, and introduce the learners to the contexts that are relevant to the knowledge and skills.


Take Notes for Next Trips #

Learning is a continuous process, and as you wrap up your first trip, there will probably be the next. Always take note on what’s working and what’s not, and remember that assessment and instruction design are iterative processes — always find ways to refine them.

As briefly mentioned in Have Checkpoints!, learners are not the only one being assessed in a learning journey. The program, or the course itself, should also be assessed to see if there are ways to alter the course (especially in terms of assessments and/or instructions) that might improve students’ learning. There are three main questions when it comes to research in educational design: what works?, when does it work?, and how does it work?

What Works? #

Gauging what works and what doesn’t will answer the question of what method causes learning or promotes better learning. This research can be done by doing an experimental comparison, where you have two groups of students and give one group an experimental instruction and/or assessment, while the other should be “business as usual”. Students should be randomly assigned to groups, and as much as possible, the experiment and control condition should be the only thing that differs between the two groups. That is, the spread of different prior knowledge, socio-economic status, or other factors that might cause difference in learning, should be balanced between the two groups. Measure the learning gain by comparing students’ pre-test scores to their post-test scores.

When Does It Work? #

The second research question, when does it work?, poses the question of whether a method is more effective under certain conditions. The expertise reversal effect, which is the notion that the effectiveness of certain instructional methods reverse on more expert learners, is an example of research result to this question. This research can be done by doing factorial experimental comparison. Simply put, in factorial experimental comparison, there is more than one factor that differs between your control and experiment group. Aside from the instruction and/or assessment method, you should also vary the type of learner, the goals, or the learning environment.

How Does It Work? #

The last question, how does it work?, is about getting to know what learning processes determine the effectiveness of an instruction and/or assessment. For example, does self-explanation work because the learners do their thinking process twice (when answering and when they explain their answers), or because learners tend to think more deeply when they are asked to explain their answer? Research about this question can be done through observation, interview, or questionnaire on the learners.


To be completely honest, I actually forgot I had this note. Hopefully sharing this would be helpful for someone! I also realize I still have a lot to learn, so please also tell me your go-to resources to learn about learning :)

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks, & only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” — Herb Simon

Originally on Medium

—Halida |