Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An Incremental Approach to Improving Learning Outcomes (Better than "Flipping")

Arguably the most important facing higher education is that, for a variety of reasons, the ways students aren't mastering higher order skills (ability to use knowledge to analyze, create, innovate, act wisely and ethically, etc.) nearly as much as needed nor as much as they once did.  Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift is one persuasive source of empirical evidence on that point.  Just one of many important reasons for declining student achievement: full-time students are investing only about half the time in academic work than they did thirty years ago.

Against this backdrop comes a rush of discussion and confusion about 'flipping courses,' a notion that is sometimes justified as a strategy for improving higher order learning.  I think the term 'flipping' is being used to point to some good changes but, as a label, it's more misleading than helpful.

For example, a recipe for improving learning needs to include more than one way to assure that students learn from their assignments, including doing the kind of work, and enough work, to reorganize their minds.

I recently gave a featured address at the International Conference on College Teaching and Learning on this set of questions, entitled "Bit by Bit: An Incremental Approach to Improving Learning."

Briefly, many elements are needed for a successful, sustainable approach to teaching what is actually college-level learning, including:

  1. Reconsidering the course (and academic program) in light of what graduates need to be able to do with the content they've learned, in later courses and after graduation ("backward design");
  2. Stealing the students' beer time - assignments and other academic work that are so engaging that students will choose to spend more time studying (this is necessary but not sufficient for students to study more);
  3. Leveraging face-to-face opportunities for what can be done best face-to-face;
  4. At least four kinds of feedback (what Schön and Argyris called 'learning loops'), including:
    • Feedback that keeps students going (farther and deeper), helping them see progress, helping them get unstuck;
    • Feedback from that student work going to faculty, to help plan the next class session;
    • Feedback to faculty that helps them tweak the design of the course;
    • Feedback to faculty that helps all this work seem more rewarding, encouraging those faculty to keep on improving their courses.
I called the talk 'Bit by Bit' because these kinds of improvements don't all need to be done simultaneously or only in this order.  In fact there are even smaller chunks of improvement that can be tried (and supported by the institution), one at a time.

The long term goal, however, is cumulative, major changes in how we teach, how students invest in their own learning, and what our graduates are able to do.

I've recorded a version of the address on YouTube, in two installments. The whole talk is about 50 minutes long:

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