Design Learning To Promote Mastery Rather Than Failure

Mike Grimshaw, Director of the Entrepreneurial Institute at California State University, Dominguez Hills, focuses on mastery as he designs and delivers his courses.

Too often, learning experiences are designed for failure, or at least to weed out those who fail.  In many college courses, it is expected that students will attend class, read the textbook, complete assignments and then take an exam that a significant portion of the class will fail.

What if we turned learning design upside down and designed for mastery instead of failure? To do this, we would need to focus on students and keep their interests at the center of everything we do—to understand their needs and wants, their constraints, what motivates them, and what keeps them from succeeding.  

Two instructional designers, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their famous book, Understanding by Design, created a framework called backward design that the O’Donnell Learn design team lives by.

When using backward design, start by determining what exactly you want your students to master. This becomes a set of big ideas and learning outcomes, which is called the course blueprint. This enables you to ensure that the entire class is on the same page and that students know what’s expected of them.

Next, rethink assessment. In order to assess for mastery, you need to focus less on summative assessment (such as making the midterm and final count for most of the grade) and more on formative assessment—frequent checkpoints that enable the learner to self-correct. Often, and depending on your course blueprint, mastery requires some sort of demonstration or transfer of learning.  So, you may need to move to project-based, experiential or authentic assessments to measure attainment of mastery.

Finally, determine the learning activities that will help your learners succeed. This is where focusing on the students is critical. For example, if you ask students to demonstrate mastery, you might want to focus more on case studies and stories and less on terms and concepts. If most of your students are visual learners, it might be more effective to include a video rather than a lengthy textbook reading.  Also, backward design principles show us that students learn through teaching, so using peer instruction techniques can jump start students to mastery. All of this may sound like a lot of work, and for many instructors and learning designers, a lot of change.  But, it doesn’t have to happen all at once.  Take a few steps today and see where it takes you tomorrow.  If more learning experiences were focused on mastery, student success and retention would increase and failure rates would

Is Education Ripe For Innovation?

I am flying home from the SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco.  During the past few days, there was a lot of dialog about the future, and, both campus and industry thought leaders asserted that the time is now for innovation.  Some of the themes that I think are very relevant for entrepreneurs…

Institutions are experimenting, especially in higher ed.  While most of the startups at the conference have K12 solutions, several panels showed that experimentation is more fertile in higher ed, which lacks the bureaucratic constraints that stifle experimentation in K12. CIOs Joe Moreau from DeAnza-Foothills CC and Eric Hawley from Utah State showed that the culture and process for experimentation on college campuses is increasing.  Joe commented that piloting is the way to go:  “it gives us permission to fail and allows us to date before we get married.”  Eric had the best quote of the conference:  “What’s hot is simple.  What’s not is complex.”

Focus on the teachable moment.  Many of the panelists believe that the upcoming innovations are going to be all about making teachers rock stars and using technology to increase student/teacher interaction.  Diana Rhoten from Amplify noted that the first wave of ed tech innovations were about faster and cheaper, and the next wave will be focused on teaching and learning.

MOOCs are escalating innovation. Every conference in education has a buzz around MOOCs (massive online open courses).  Howard Lurie of EdX asserted that the open sourcing of the EdX platform (slated for June) provides institutions with a sandbox for innovation.  The platform captures every keystroke and provides a window into the learning process.

Shifting roles prompt innovation. The roles of the publishers, technology players, libraries and bookstores are all shifting as the advent of new models means that lines between content, technology and services are blurred.   Gerry Hanley, at Cal State, commented that the role of the publishers is shifting as MOOCs and other open education resources become prevalent. Similarly, Mike Diaz from Proquest, the library database company, described the shifting role of librarians to be more involved in helping faculty and students access course content. Others described new learning management solutions that are cloud-based and open-source and become essentially plugs for the many apps that schools are choosing to adopt.

Clearly, the time for education innovation is NOW.  And, it’s up to us entrepreneurs and innovators to take advantage of the climate and imagine the future.