Identifying Instructional Design Issues

When thinking about all of the courses I have taken during my postsecondary educational career, I don’t recall many that did not meet my expectations.  My expectations for a college course were that I would be required to read a large amount of material, that I would be required to write as a significant portion of my grade, and that I would be expected to take responsibility for my own learning.  More often than not this is exactly what I have gotten from my college courses.  Professors and classmates have been more or less memorable, but the general impression I have been left with is that education is a journey of personal growth that must begin with a commitment to learning.

After searching through my University of Houston transcripts, I could only find three courses that did not meet my expectations in some fashion.  The first two were large lecture courses in the Chemistry and Geology departments—“Fundamentals of Chemistry” and “Physical Geology”—that I was required to take for my bachelor’s degree.  The third was an online course in the English department—“Grammar & Usage”—that was one of the electives for my major.  I decided to include the large lecture courses in this reflection because they were unlike most of the other classes I took as an undergraduate, lacking the interaction that I had come to expect from my professors and classmates during class time.  I decided to include the online course because it was particularly uninspiring and dull, not being much more than a series of text-laden web pages and PowerPoint presentations.  In the sections that follow I shall examine these three courses for instructional design issues and devise potential solutions to these problems that I might employ in my own courses.

Too Difficult or Too Easy?

With regard to the large lecture courses, it wasn’t that they were too difficult or too easy.  These courses were simply too large for teacher-student interaction to be anything more than cursory.  Technology has provided an innovative solution to this problem in the form of electronic feedback devices or “clickers” that can be used during lectures to solicit instant feedback from students.  This feedback can then be used by the professor to assess student learning and determine which content needs to be reviewed.  Unfortunately, this simple technological solution was not in common use during my undergraduate years and I never encountered it before I began teaching for a community college.  The sole purpose of my large lecture courses seemed to be to transmit the information found in the textbook in slightly simplified form, emphasizing material that might be found on the midterm or final exam.  There were no opportunities for interaction and the presentation of the material was often dull and uninspiring.  Thus, I didn’t attend many of the lecture sessions.  I did pass the course, however!

The online course suffered from a lack of interactivity in different way.  Besides logging on to the learning management system to access the presentations posted by the professor, there was no reason to linger within the online course.  All assignments could be completed offline and the presentations were short and to the point.  I wouldn’t say that the course was too difficult or too easy, but I would say that the course was not very engaging.  I took another online course shortly before “Grammar & Usage” that was much more interactive and content-rich, which suggests to me that the problem with this online course originated in its design rather than its mode of delivery.  Solving the problem of unengaging courses is the province of instructional designers.  Instructional designers work with faculty to ensure that the course content being presented to students is content that will engage them and provide them with greater opportunities for learning (Brown, Eaton, Jacobsen, Roy, & Friesen, 2013).  Instructional designers employ learning theories to guide the creation of course content, aligning instruction with technology and pedagogy in ways that suit the content (Afifi & Alamri, 2014).

Clear Learning Objectives?

I can’t recall any explicit mentions of the course learning objectives for any of the three courses under examination.  There may have been a cursory overview of the course learning objectives in the syllabus for each course, but I’m certain that I did not pay attention to them even if they were there.  I assumed that the learning objectives for any course I took were to acquire as much knowledge as possible about the subject or subjects being covered with an emphasis on being able to express this knowledge in the form of written assessment.  The practice of explicitly outlining the course learning objectives is useful for those students who need to know exactly what will be expected of them as the outcome of their participation in the course.  I can do without knowing the course learning objectives, but just because I have no use for them does not mean that they should not be included in a course syllabus as a matter of routine.  If just one person per class found them useful, then it would be worth including them as standard practice.  I suspect that many more people than one per class find them helpful or reassuring.

Course Content Effective?

In all three courses the content was effective at increasing my store of knowledge concerning the subjects being taught.  I have always been able to learn from reading texts and these courses provided quality texts to aid in my learning.  Even though the course materials—lectures, textbooks, handouts, etc.—weren’t very engaging in any of the courses, they did the job of transmitting essential knowledge for each discipline clearly and efficiently.  Course content, in my experience, is not a problem in need of a solution.  It is merely the raw material that needs to be shaped for maximum impact on the learner.

Engaging Learning Activities and Collaboration?

By now it should be clear that there were very few, if any, engaging learning activities in my chosen courses.  The online course featured a major assignment that required students to investigate an issue in grammar and usage of the English language.  I found this assignment quite interesting because I was able to choose the issues that I wanted to research and learned some interesting facts about English that I had never known before.  Other than that assignment, there weren’t any engaging learning activities from these courses that stand out in my mind.  However, the course content was good enough that I could engage with the material even if it wasn’t always presented in the most engaging ways possible.

Not surprisingly, there were no opportunities to collaborate with other students in these courses.  That never bothered me during my time in college because I did not want to work with others to earn a grade.  I would much rather work independently and succeed or fail based on my own efforts.  However, I understand that for many students the process of collaboration can facilitate learning, so I see a need to educate myself about how collaborative activities are effectively employed in teaching.  Collaborating with an instructional designer could provide me with assistance in crafting engaging learning activities and collaborative assignments while simultaneously teaching me about the process of collaboration itself.  In European higher education institutions it is much more common for instructors to be members of an online course design team (Hillen & Landis, 2014).  The instructor fulfills the role of “subject matter expert” while one or more instructional designers provide expertise on how to deliver engaging content, interactive materials, and assessment aligned with instruction.  Course design teams would be wonderful if they could be made a standard part of faculty training for new teachers.  More likely is the situation that instructors will find themselves with little or no guidance on how to proceed in creating a course.

Fair and Effective Assessment?

The evaluation tools used to measure my mastery of the course concepts seemed like fair and accurate assessments as far as I could tell, though my memory of the exams, projects, and papers I turned in isn’t very clear.  There was very little emphasis on written assessment in the two large lecture courses, which is understandable given the number of students enrolled in each course section.  Only in my geology course did the assessments consist entirely of multiple choice tests based on the textbook readings.  Multiple choice tests can be effective measures of student learning, but they do not provide students the opportunity to practice expressing that knowledge in written form.  For large lecture courses, it may be necessary to reduce the grading workload by using multiple choice tests, but it is always advisable to include some form of writing activity in a course even if it is not graded.

Nine Events of Instruction Included?

The nine events of instruction are activities that are correlated to the conditions of learning as described by theorist Robert Gagne.  The nine events of instruction are: (a) stimulation to gain learner attention, (b) informing learners of learning goals, (c) reminding learners of previously learned content, (d) clear presentation of material, (e) learning guidance, (f) eliciting learner performance, (g) providing feedback about performance correctness, (h) assessing performance, and (i) enhancing retention and transfer.  Of these nine events, I recall about half of them occurring with some regularity in my chosen courses.

For example, the material for all three courses was always presented clearly.  There were major assessments of performance in the form of exams and papers, and the learning goals for each course were always clear inasmuch as students were informed of what they were supposed to be learning each week.  Eliciting learner performance and providing feedback about performance correctness both seem to be inherent parts of the assessment process, so I can include those events as making up a part of my three courses as well.  The other four events of instruction—stimulation to gain learner attention, reminding learners of previously learned content, learning guidance, and enhancing retention and transfer—were not present as far as I can remember.  These events may have been present to a small degree, but they were not so prominent that I remember them clearly.  To get a better idea of the weaknesses of these courses, I will now define each of the missing events in turn.

Stimulating learners to gain their attention can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  One technique that I have seen employed in various classrooms is to share with students a surprising or funny picture related to the day’s lesson.  This technique usually focuses student attention on the lesson and prepares them to learn more by stimulating interest in the subject.  Reminding learners of previous learning is helpful because it prompts students to make connections between the knowledge they already possess and the knowledge they are just encountering.  Instructors must anticipate the cognitive needs of learners to determine the most appropriate times to remind students of what they have already studied.  This skill is developed over time from the experience of teaching a subject and the feedback instructors receive from students.  Learning guidance simply refers to explicit pedagogical support for students.  This pedagogical support can come in the form of scaffolding for assignments, direct communication from instructor to student addressing concerns and questions about the course materials, or examples of successful student performances for learners to study and emulate.  Enhancing retention and transfer is the process by which the knowledge gained from taking a course becomes embedded in long-term memory and becomes available for use in new situations and environments.  Written reflection is one method of enhancing retention and transfer of content knowledge and can be implemented easily in any course.

Conclusion

The three courses I examined in this paper were not inherently bad courses.  The course materials were effective at transmitting essential knowledge about the disciplines to which each course was attached.  However, the courses were not designed to encourage student engagement with the material.  Instructional designers could assist in re-imagining these courses so that the student experience is one of active engagement.  Students must bring their desire to learn with them to college if they are to be successful in the long run, but there’s no reason why instructors can’t make the process of learning new material as pleasant and as efficient as possible.

Instructional designers construct courses by rigorously adhering to a model of best practice.  In the reading for this week, the primary model cited is the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation) model (Hsu, Lee-Hsieh, Turton, & Cheng, 2014), which requires course creators to consider the needs of learners as the basis of any design that emerges from the “Analysis” stage.  In addition to employing an ADDIE-type model as a key tool of course creation and development, Snyder and Gardner (2011) stressed the need to assemble a design team that involves all stakeholders in the course, including administrators, instructors, instructional designers, and IT support staff.  I don’t expect that I will be able to assemble a design team to build and revise the courses that I teach, but the trajectory for departments of instructional design appears to be toward greater collaboration with faculty and administrators in the development of effective courses that shine in terms of content as well as in their ability to engage students in active learning.

References

Afifi, M. K., & Alamri, S. S. (2014). Effective principles in designing e-course in light of learning theories. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 128-142.  Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr

Brown, B., Eaton, S. E., Jacobsen, D. M., Roy, S., & Friesen, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. Journal of Online Learning & Teaching, 9(3), 439-452.  Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org

Hillen, S. A., & Landis, M. (2014). Two perspectives on e-learning design: A synopsis of a U.S.and a European analysis. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15(4), 199-225.  Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl

Hsu, T.-C., Lee-Hsieh, J., Turton, M. A., & Cheng, S.-F. (2014). Using the ADDIE model to develop online continuing education courses on caring for nurses in Taiwan. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 45(3), 124-131. doi: 10.3928/00220124-20140219-04

Snyder, D., & Gardner, J. (2011). Implementing a world-class e-learning technology in a graduate instructional design course. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 40(4), 389-399.  Retrieved from http://ets.sagepub.com

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