All aligned – Instruction

In higher education, we have our students do all the hardest learning by themselves.  As academics, our greatest strength is expertise, but we routinely select passive instructional strategies that have our students mostly listening to lectures in our classes and doing their learning later.  Choosing passive listening robs us of the opportunity to provide the nuance and clarification that learners need while they learn. This post focuses on selecting the right type of instructional approaches to have our students actively learning the most important and challenging things they will need.

Relationship to our Learning Charter:There are two learning charter educator commitments related our instructional approaches to learning tasks:

  • Be aware of the range of instructional methods and assessment strategies, and select and utilize teaching methods that are effective in helping students achieve the learning outcome of a course or learning activity
  • Ensure that content is current, accurate, relevant to learning outcomes/objectives, representative of the knowledge and skills being taught and appropriate to the position of the learning experience within a program of study

Aligning the type of learning and your outcome: The type of learning you want your students to do dictates your instructional approach.  If the task is to recall factual information, but not be able to use it is any way, lecture is actually a very effective way to communicate that information.  Student will still need to rehearse it (memorize) by studying in order to learn, and sadly, will often forget much of it six months out.  In addition, the most useful things taught by an expert are rarely basic facts. They are skills, concepts, and refined understandings, which novice students learn most effectively while actively engaging in learning facilitated by an expert. When we intersperse passive teaching with the right type of active learning given our outcomes, students are much more likely to learn the most challenging things we have to teach.

Choosing the right strategy:

  1. Determine the type of learning you want students to do (not just the content you want to cover) by writing or using a good learning outcome.
  2. Select an appropriate active approach, and intermix it with your passive approaches to increase the amount of student learning.
Type of learning Instructional approach
Knowledge: factual information like terms, classifications, and theorists · Passive: Tell student about the knowledge (lecture, video, reading)

· Active: Have student use the facts in meaningful ways to learn them (mind-mapping, listing, drill and practice, sorting/drag and drop)

Conceptual: ideas understood well enough to apply it in new situations to assess or evaluate, like the concept of a successful argument or the concept of balanced · Passive: Read a complex explanation, hear someone describe the concept

·  Active: Classify or sort parts of the concept using criteria, refine an example of the concept, find errors, render judgement, construct an example of the concept, compare personal understanding to an example or rubric, reflect on growth of conceptual understanding over time

Process (cognitive): use a series of mental steps to accomplish a task, like solving for X

Process (psycho-motor or physical): use a series of physical steps with the right degree of acuity, like a neat set of the correct stitches

·Passive: observe someone do the steps

·Active: Try to do the steps, put the steps in order, find errors in someone else doing the steps, predict what will happen if the steps are done wrong, reflect on personal success in completing the steps

Skill: Combing multiple types of learning to accomplish a goal, for example identify the critical parts of a complex problem, choose the order to do it in, and solve the problem correctly · Passive: Hear about or see someone else using the skill

· Active: Try the skill in context (experiential learning) and reflect on success, complete a simulation, generate a decision-making tree or matrix, construct an argument on the implications of the application of the skill by someone else, provide feedback to another person by comparing their use of the skill to criteria

Learn more:

Read the other blogs in this sequence about constructive alignment:

Read the other chats related to Our Learning Charter to learn about other educator commitments.

Is Your Instruction Designed to Produce Student Learning?

Lecture is an efficient way to transmit information, especially in large classes. We inevitably feel there is a lot of content to cover, since the gap between what novice students know and expert professors know is large. However, large, uninterrupted blocks of lecture are very inefficient ways to learn, because they are passive. Learners get cognitive overload and stop processing, have trouble paying attention, and remember some ideas that they struggle to apply or connect conceptually.  All of these occur, even with strong learners, and even with instructors who provide exceptionally focused, clear delivery of information. The mind just learns more if it is actively engaged in thinking.

As a method of direct instruction, lecture is focused on a well-organized, clear presentation of information.  Its cousin, explicit instruction, is much better aligned with what we know about how the brain learns, because it is active.

Explicit instruction:

  • students are guided through the learning process with clear statements about the purpose of learning the new skill
  • teachers give clear explanations and demonstrations
  • students engage in supported practice with feedback at intervals throughout the entire class, not just at the end

The key distinction is that while there are periods of telling information, student are asked to demonstrate the skill they are learning and practice it with feedback.  As a result, they are much more likely to remember, make fewer errors, are more focused, and more motivated.  They are also more likely to describe the learning and important and describe how to keep improving. There is clear alignment between the goal of having students understand more deeply, and the activities they are asked to participate in to support their learning.

Why does all this mater?

When we set the goals for what our students will be able to know and do by the end of class (outcomes), we need to think carefully about how remembering information is essential, but not sufficient, learning. We want students to be able to correctly apply the new information in a process, to make decisions and informed judgments, and to use new information for reasoned arguments.  That means our classes need help students develop these competencies and practice them with feedback. Our outcomes, our instruction, and how we assess all need align and work cohesively together to support effective learning processes. If they don’t, we become Professor Dancelot of video fame, with good intentions and little actual learning.

Learn more:

  • Interesting Book: Donald A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures? (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 252, 11.
  • Oft cited scholarly history: C. Bane, “The Lecture vs. the Class-Discussion Method of College Teaching,” School and Society 21 (1925); B.S. Bloom, “Thought-Processes in Lectures and Discussions,” Journal of General Education 7 (1953).