Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Ways to Organize Content

When and where certain instructional strategies are used makes a difference. The order or sequence of instruction has a bearing on what is learned and how it is learned. One of the first choices you will make is to present an overview of the topic or to present detail on the topic leading to a finale. For purposes of this posting, we will term one the Overview approach and call the other the Climax approach.
The Overview Approach presents the big picture of your topic. It can be used to describe the field in general or be used to describe major sub-divisions in the field or textbook. The Overview approach is used to provide context and structure to the remaining instruction on the topic. You provide the general overview and then supply details that are connected to the overview. The Climax Approach deliberately presents details of the field leading to some conclusion or finale. Each approach can be used to achieve specific, but very different, learning outcomes.
The Overview approach is very useful if your intent is to build a structured knowledge base on the content. Since the focus of instruction is on where details fit into the structure of the discipline, students have structured organizational holders in which to group most details. Most learning theories support a structure where students can begin to insert details gained during instruction.  The highly structured Overview approach is particularly useful for novices, until they gain a sufficient knowledge base. The Climax approach favors a greater use of higher order thinking skills. Many studies have demonstrated that students with some prior knowledge on a topic favor this approach.
Either approach can be used in conjunction with a textbook. As the content expert, make deliberate decisions about how you organize the chapters in the textbook to support your organization of the topic. Most textbooks present a defined amount of content with a particular beginning and end within a chapter.  Most textbooks do not do a particularly good job of connecting content to an Overview or Climax approach. This is fertile ground for you to use your creativity to organize content in ways that aid retention. Most novices do not know the large overarching structures that permeate most fields and they do not know how the fragmented content presented in textbook chapters connects to these structures. This is a wonderful opportunity to deliberately teach those structures and demonstrate how you think about the content.
There are numerous ways to craft Overview or Climax activities into distance courses. Perhaps you begin with an overview of the content in general and then provide overviews for each learning unit or module. Perhaps you conclude each unit or module with a climax that provides rationale and connects the various pieces of content presented in the unit or module. You might consider providing a topical outline for each module in your course. You might use probing questions on a discussion forum or in a blog assignment to foreshadow the climax and encourage students to anticipate the conclusion of the module or unit. Be creative and design activities that help students see the connections between certain elements of the content.
Reference:  Svincki, M. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Views on Learning: Two Major Views in Three Centuries

The Human Brain
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, serious attempts were made by the scientific community to study the human mind in earnest. This early work moved from introspective descriptions of thoughts to the study of observable behaviors and the stimuli associated with these behaviors. Behaviorists, following the empiricist tradition, assumed learning was the process of forming connections between stimuli and responses. Learning motivation was thought to be driven by drives and by the availability of rewards and punishments.

Early behaviorism, with a focus on observable behaviors and stimuli, was limited when studying less observable behaviors like understanding and reasoning. Behaviorism moderated somewhat and began to allow hypotheses about unobservable mental processes while retaining a data-driven perspective.

In the 1950s, the field of cognitive science emerged, due to more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of the human species. Cognitive science approached the study of learning from an interdisciplinary perspective, used new experimental tools, and developed new approaches. This field contributed to our understanding of the social and cultural contexts of learning. The study of learning came to emphasize learning with understanding. This approach acknowledges the importance of foundational knowledge (facts) while probing “usable knowledge.”

Inquiry into the application of foundational knowledge to novel situations brought ideas of “ways of knowing” into the study of learning. Humans come into any learning situation with pre-existing knowledge, skills, and beliefs that influence how they organize new information. This pre-existing knowledge may be accurate or full of incomplete understanding and misconceptions. Humans are not passive learners by nature. New developments in the study of learning also emphasize active, self-directed learning as important. Learners should work toward understanding what they know and what they do not know to grow as a learner.

Bransford, J., Brown, A, & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.