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Crafting A Learning Framework, Part 1

A cloud of words connecting education and career success

From Dr. Gregory Fowler, former CAO:

Some time ago I asked our senior academic managers to revisit the essential elements of our student learning environment. As the college continued to grow rapidly, we knew re-examining our basic assumptions and practices related to student learning would only get more difficult as the numbers of faculty, courses, students and learning resources increased exponentially.

One area of particular interest was the core ideology about learning science. Our entire academic team — including vice presidents, deans, faculty and specialists in instructional design outcomes and learning resources — engaged in a yearlong review of some seemingly simple but critical questions.

  • What does it mean to learn?
  • How does learning occur?
  • Have we built a learning experience in all of our classes that conforms to our answers to these first two questions?

Some were eager to confirm that they were and always had been building classes that took these questions into consideration. However as we dug into learning science it became clear that while we agreed that we define learning as the transformative process by which a person increases knowledge or skill, many had no concrete understanding of how learning occurs, making it very difficult to design an effective learning environment.

Digging Deeper
So we began to dig into the literature, hosting workshops and weekly book club meetings to answer such questions as:

  • What are the challenges in requiring expert faculty members to design a learning environment for novice students hoping to master concepts?
  • How do you ensure that students are not deceiving themselves into believing they have mastered concepts, when in fact they have only become more familiar with texts?

We also examined the roles of forgetting, self-assessment and many other aspects of learning as a process.

As we did so the necessity of the disaggregation of faculty roles became even clearer. Subject-matter experts engaged instructional designers to build the best learning models. Outcomes and assessment specialists worked with faculty to define clear and measurable outcomes. The deliberate design process closely resembled architectural engineering sessions. We were creating, exploring and testing through worlds of learning experiences we developed for our students and holding ourselves accountable for the results rather than assuming that all of the processes used in the past were necessary or sufficient.

This ignited a passion in our team that I have rarely seen in academic groups. It is what most faculty had hoped teaching and learning would be, but many realized no one had ever explicitly and deliberately pushed them to move beyond their terminal degree content areas to the andragogy that is equally important to learning. Bringing them together and asking them to start with the idea that nothing should be assumed about learning processes resulted in the learning framework for the online environment Jaymes Myers elaborates on below.
— Dr. Gregory Fowler

Core Principles
Jaymes Myers:
As Dr. Fowler mentions above, the deliberate and focused efforts in defining learning science as it can be applied for our SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education students resulted in a fantastic discussion about what constitutes a quality course, how we should measure learning and success in our courses, and how we know that students have mastered the learning outcomes of our courses and degree programs.

The result of these conversations established the following core principles of the SNHU COCE learning design framework. The purpose of these principles is to guide decision-making in our design process, avoiding standard templates, checklists or dictated requirements for courses. The principles provide the landscape and foundation upon which our teams of expert faculty, instructional designers and outcomes and assessment specialists work, enabling them to build the right structure and architecture appropriate for the vast array of learning needs across our degree programs.

Principle 1: Conceptual Frameworks – Course concepts should be represented to students by their relationships, and not as discrete elements.

It should come as no surprise that rote memorization of individual concepts (terms, theories, definitions, etc.) rarely leads to students learning how to apply and integrate these concepts in their work.

This has been a popular approach in course and textbook design, with the unfortunate effect of students preparing for a high-stakes exam rather than using their learning as a baseline for further investigation.

Adult learners in particular need to demonstrate mastery level understanding of the relationships among key concepts and their relevance to their personal and professional experiences. Providing learners with a conceptual framework for a degree program, course and/or learning unit allows for a greater comprehension of the explicit purpose and relevance of concepts toward the achievement of the essential learning goals. This models the way in which experts organize knowledge (as opposed to basic novice structures with simple, linear relationships). Dr. Susan Ambrose and her colleagues in “How Learning Works” have articulated a solid defense for why it is important to help students organize knowledge and concepts in complex ways. She makes a number of important points that have informed our principles. Our course designs seek to introduce students to the vexing questions, unresolved problems and guiding themes of a subject area, enabling students to situate themselves in the field of study as active participants.

Principle 2: Spaced and Varied Practice – Students should be provided multiple opportunities to practice various elements of a skill.

One of the challenges in the standard term-based structure of university education is finding ways in which students can engage in the practice of a particular skill over an extended period of time. We know that spaced repetition (encountering a skill, trying it out, relearning that skill for a different purpose, then adding new problems to solve with that skill) produces a higher degree of memory retrieval (see Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel’s work in “Make it Stick”). This means that we need to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to practice the functions of a particular skill in new and interesting ways throughout a course. Mastery-level learning requires more than providing a single opportunity for students to pass an assessment; it requires multiple scenarios and varied situations for the student to move beyond low-level taxonomy skills to synthesis and application.

The design challenges here are immense. One of the instructional design tactics that we use in our courses is the “whole-part-whole” learning model (see Richard A. Swanson and Bryan D. Law’s work in this area) in which students may be asked to complete an entire sequence of steps or are introduced to a completed artifact before practicing the more focused skills needed to reproduce the “whole.” This allows students to identify their gaps in knowledge early on, recognize where they may have deficiencies, practice these skills for multiple functions and then integrate these back into a final culminating experience.

Principle 3: Pre-Assessments and Diagnostics – Courses should provide opportunities to transparently identify gaps in learning through pre-assessments and diagnostic methods.

Another challenge that online educators face is being able to provide individualized learning opportunities for students (in truth, we seldom capitalize on these opportunities in the more traditional face-to-face education models either). Learners come to our courses with a vast array of knowledge and skills. Our ability to properly diagnose their individual needs depends on our having robust tools in place to assess their prior knowledge and build a learning environment capable of solving the results of our gap analysis and supporting them to a level of mastery.

Our learning teams have been tasked with identifying non-intrusive and frequent diagnostic opportunities for students to assess their learning. Instructors and academic support staff can use this information to identify just-in-time support services, customize recommendations for learning resources, and – as technology evolves – identify individual learning pathways. These assessments might range from basic survey responses to asking students to submit graphic concept maps or engage in virtual simulations.

Principle 4: Self-Assessment and Reflection – Courses should utilize student self-assessment as a method of articulating students’ own understanding of course concepts and outcomes.

Our learning science and assessment team has been asked to identify how we know if a course is successful. What constitutes “success” for a learning designer? The answer is often surprising – it’s not about the flashiness of a course or the creative and innovative design elements. It’s not simply about whether a student has a passing grade in the course. To a learning designer, success means students can articulate their own learning accurately and precisely in accordance with the learning goals of the course. If a student is meta-cognitively aware of what they do and do not know in a given subject area, we can confidently say that the course has provided the right tools and content.

Self-assessment and reflection is a key component in this area, and involves a process that is much more complex than asking students at the end of a course, “What have you learned?” Asking students to engage in a detailed assessment of their projects using the same grading rubrics instructors use helps disrupt the traditional roles of assessor and subject. The student is asked to be accountable to how they did or did not meet the requirements and expectations of an assignment. The benefits to this are immense, not only to students’ own learning, but also for helping instructors engage in helpful, supportive conversations around the gaps in students’ skills and knowledge.

Watch for “Creating a Learning Framework, Part 2” next week to read about the remaining principles and how we use these to inform our learning design.

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.