Successful Learning: A Matter of Both ‘What’ and ‘When’

Meeting the Needs by John AdsitI recently addressed the value of using learning objects to address student needs for prerequisite skills in online instruction. I suggested developing a library of learning activities that could be tapped into whenever a student had an identified learning need that was interfering with present learning. Not too long ago an online education company considered the idea of using independent learning objects of this kind to create new courses just by mixing and matching the objects as needed. They also considered building a course entirely with such lessons, letting students select the lessons they needed in the order they felt they needed them. This, they felt, was the epitome of student-centered learning.

As tempting as it sounds, it is a plan to be avoided. The obvious advantages have too many disadvantages in terms of best practices in curriculum design. It makes it difficult to ensure proper sequencing, it creates the possibility of improper transfer loads, and it precludes the course designer using perhaps the most effective of all instructional strategies.

I was once consulting with a teacher designing an online middle school level English course. She had first identified the state standards to be addressed and was now planning the sequence in which those standards would be met. One of those standards was a research paper, and the teacher had decided to make this the very first unit. She felt it was the most challenging, and she wanted to “get it out of the way first.” I pointed out that, to be successful in that unit, students would already need to have mastered many of the skills she was planning to teach later in the course. For example, research papers demand the use of quotation marks, which was not going to be taught for several months. She eventually realized that a researched report would be an excellent chance for students to demonstrate learning for many of the standards in the course and should thus logically come after those skills had been taught.

Proper sequencing of instruction is one of the most important elements in effective curriculum design, and in my past role as a director of curriculum, I was amazed at the number of course designers who were apt to teach topics randomly without any regard for how one learning leads logically to another. This was even true in designing math instruction, where one would expect proper sequencing to be self evident. If certified teachers have trouble designing a learning sequence that makes sense, how can we expect students to do any better?

One of the biggest problems with online education today is that in many cases, with even well designed instruction, students have the ability to skip or skim over important instructional steps and go right to assessment where they too often struggle.

Even if the sequence is proper, the steps between them have to be suitable in their increasing level of complexity. In effective learning, students apply old learning to new situations. Each step in the educational process should put an appropriate transfer load on the student. Too little increase in complexity and the student is bored; too much, and the student is baffled. One of the biggest problems with online education today is that in many cases, with even well designed instruction, students have the ability to skip or skim over important instructional steps and go right to assessment where they too often struggle.

The most important problem with designing online curriculum with independent learning objects is the limitations put on the design of the lessons themselves. Since you cannot tell what a given student will have encountered instructionally before a lesson, there can be no reference to previous learning in a lesson. In What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action, Bob Marzano cites research demonstrating that the most effective strategies by far in boosting learning are those that force students to make comparisons, finding key similarities and differences . When students are effectively shown how what they are learning now is both similar to and different from what they learned in the past, achievement soars. When you use a curriculum strategy that forbids or works against such activities, you have taken the most effective learning tool out of the hands of the course designer.

Learning objects, then, are powerful tools for helping students deal with problems interfering with present learning, but a proper learning sequence is such a powerful tool that it must continue to be a critical component of instructional design.

4 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Student-centric has become a catch-all for a number of well-intentioned but misdirected programs. The first question anyone must ask when encountering someone proclaiming student-centric programs is “What does student-centric mean?”

    Good program design is non-trivial and should be left to the experts. The number of interactions between various ideas and concepts is huge. Not understanding these dependencies means that you can design a program that simply does not work. Worse, it will cause students to fail in disastrous ways. A good program will challenge students so that they do fail sometimes and have the support necessary to overcome the failure and learn from it. With a poor progarm, they simply fail.

    What then is good student-centric design? Self-paced learning is one example that works for many students. Another that can function well if very carefully designed is differentiated learning. Provide challenges appropriate to the learner.

    My view of the future of education has students working on a variety of tasks presented through software and being assisted by the teacher when necessary. These tasks may include group projects and hands-on activities as well as those entirely mediated by computer. By removing the necessity for teachers to be disciplinarians, this kind of technology will liberate teacher and student to achieve better learning.

  2. I agree that sequence is important in curriculum design, but the problem is complex. A linear model for learning appears logical, but for tasks such as writing, a recursive model is probably better suited.

    For example, those who adhere to a linear model might insist that students must master basic grammar (usually based on the Latin model) before they are taught composition. Thus, writing readiness activities focus on grammar drills rather than writing.

    A recursive approach assumes that learning is a process of continual learning and relearning. In place of mastery, we have a cyclical process of reconstruction.

    With the recursive model, course design requires flexibility and an eye toward contingency. This is where the online environment shines. At any point in the course structure, the student is able to link to information that s/he needs.

    For every student, needs differ. The class doesn’t advance in lockstep formation. The rhythm is more like that of recess for first and second graders rather than PE for high schoolers.

    A well-designed online class is set up to provide recursive links. Thus, an advanced composition course with an emphasis on research writing will have links to basic APA or MLA documentation guides as well as grammar refreshers. Furthermore, with a click, students can review assignment information and other resources.

    Students review previously learned information as needed, independent of others, or they delve even deeper to gain “new” knowledge. This constant recursion, I believe, is much closer to the way students perform complex processes such as writing.

    At no point can a student say, “I’ve mastered writing.” Writing nearly always represents a new learning challenge as well as a need to relearn or reapply old knowledge.

    • There is no question that one can have a false sequence, and the grammar example is perfect. In fact, in that case, it is not only not a necessary sequence, it is a sequence that is harmful to learning. I learned that personally quite a few years ago when I saw that I could teach remedial students to write clear and powerful prose when I did all I could to avoid a grammar based approach. I saw that I could teach students with learning disabilities to write well if we didn’t worry about the spelling until we were in the editing mode.

      In that case, if a course designer has decided to implement a heavy grammar-based curriculum prior to teaching writing on the theory that it is necessary, then the problem lies with an ill-informed course designer, not with the idea of proper sequencing of instruction.

      I absolutely agree that some instruction, particularly writing, is recursive in nature. I more than agree that a class does not have to move lockstep through a learning process, and I would deplore any instruction that required it.

      Instruction can be designed that follows a reasonable sequence yet still allows for student differences and all those other goodies we know are parts of effective instruction. The mistake we make in dealing with this sort of thing is to assume that those things cannot be done.

  3. Neither can you master science, history, or art. You can, however, master arithmetic and grammar. You can master spelling and plane geometry. I’m assuming that mastering does not require absolute perfection in the latter examples.

    As children acquire knowledge and skills, they can use them to advance their knowledge and skills. You can introduce a six-year old to basic concepts of light: it travels in straight lines ordinarily; some substances block it completely, some pass it; it will refect off shiny substances. Then, using that background, you add more. Other background comes into play as students use their arithmetic skills to understand refraction or their writing skills to express their analysis of their data.

    The recursive model works for any “unmasterable” subject.

    Even so, developing a curriculum requires going outside of the subject being learned to find out the skills available that were developed in other subjects. Native language arts and mathematics skills are particularly important in learning science. They are so fundamental to the entire process that learning them can even be (and has been) incorporated into science curricula.

    All of this discussion simply serves to buttress John Adsit’s point that students should not be left to design their own curricula. What students can do is select investigations or activities outside of the main stream of a curriculum. Allowances for such branches off of the main truck of a course can provide opportunities for individual challenges that can make a course more interesting to all and can result in more learning.

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