Whether you teach elementary school or graduate school, online or face-to-face; there are certain common strategies to help improve student learning and engagement. In most of my consulting with educators across delivery systems and grade levels, I find that challenges with the quality of a course usually relate to one of four categories:
- poor or unclear goals and objectives,
- sub-par content,
- a low quality assessment plan,
- or ineffective learning activities.
When I consult with organizations and individuals on improving learning and engagement, one or more of these areas often become the focus of our time together. Similarly, if you are an educator and you want to refine and improve the quality of the learning experience in your class, analyzing what you are doing in each of these four areas can be well worth your time. Below is a simple visual that represents these areas four areas. Following the visual are a few brief comments about each area, suggestions on ways to enhance what you are doing in that area, as well as tips on how to evaluating what you are doing.
Goals and Objectives
As Tony Robbins once stated, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” Goals give you a sense of direction and focus. They help you decide what to do and what not to do. For this reason, Brian Tracy wrote, “People with clear, written goals, accomplish far more in a shorter period of time than people without them could ever imagine.”
I sometimes work with educators who have content that they want to cover, tests and assignments that they want to give, but they are not directly tied to one or more clear goals or objectives for the learners. I’ve seen even the most veteran educators lose sight of the importance of goals in the learning environment. As a result, one question to ask ourselves is if we have clearly identified learning goals (whether they be decided by an outside body, the teacher, the students or a combination). Once this question is answered, then it is important to ask if everything else in the course is focused upon helping learners reach the stated goals. If it doesn’t help with the goal, get rid of it. So, it is not enough to just have goals written down. We want to make sure that that they are used to keep the experience focused.
Similarly, it becomes important to assess the quality and clarity of the goals. Are they well-defined, worthwhile, and easy to understand? Can learners easily use them as practical tools to focus and drive their time and effort? If not, refine them until that can serve these important roles.
Once we have one or more clear learning goals, then we need to decide how we are going to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to reach the goal(s). This usually means exposure to content in one or more formats. It might be texts, videos, multimedia, live presenters, content spoken and shared by peers, or hundreds of other sources. Whatever the case, poor quality content can be a significant barrier to learning. Whether it is teacher-selected or learner-selected content, we want to ask some simple but important questions. Is the content accurate? Is it accessible and understandable for individual learners? Is it chunked in digestible, logical, helpful ways? Does it support meeting the stated goal(s)?
Is there significant fluff or content not related to the goal that might distract learners? After reading about a similar study, I conducted an informal exercise with a class of students. I created four groups of students. One group was given a chapter from a psychology textbook and a learning goal. They were supposed to use the textbook to meet the learning goal. The second group got the same goal but a shortened essay that was written by me, with a few select visuals, bullet points, and a couple of illustrations and examples that I found to be useful with past students. The third group received the textbook chapter but not goal, just a directive to learn from the the text. The fourth group got my essay and no goal. After a little less than an hour, I gave all four groups a quiz that was intended to measure whether students met the goal. Every student in group two outperformed the rest of the class. Interestingly, the next best performing students came from group three. The format of the content matters.
This was far from a formal piece of research, but several follow up informal experiments with students consistently demonstrated that the quality, design and format of the content impacts what students do and do not learn. The rich body of literature about cognitive load theory verifies this claim. If we want to improve student learning, it often means revisiting how the content is shared with students. Even if it is a more self-directed classroom, this still applies. In that case, how are we helping the students find, select, and use the best content to achieve a given goal?
Assessment is about more than quizzes and tests. The essence of assessment is measuring evidence of learning or progress toward learning. When we want to focus upon improving student learning in a course, put most of the attention on formative assessment and not summative. Formative assessment is the checkup at the doctor. Summative is the autopsy. A checkup is a time to see how you are doing and then you make the necessary adjustments to maintain, improve or pursue good health. That is how formative assessments works in a class. These assessments are not about grading students. They are about helping them determine how they are progressing toward reaching the goals and then helping them make the necessary adjustments along the way.
Too often, courses have limited or poor plans for formative assessment. If we don’t know how we are doing, how are we supposed to adjust our effort or actions? As a result, a great way to increase student learning and engagement is to build a robust plan for ongoing formative feedback. I’ve written a great deal about this topic over the years, but this short article on five types of formative feedback is a good place to start. It will help you overcome the barrier of thinking that teacher feedback is your only option.
Interestingly, if you have a clear goal and a solid plan for formative feedback, I often see students learning a great deal…even in the absence of good content or learning activities. Students seem to find a way. At the same time, the actual learning activities (which are often a mix of goals, assessments and experiences with the content) have the potential to produce high-impact learning. This does require careful planning and a bit of creativity, it is well worth the effort, and it means going beyond doing the same few things over and over or just choosing the activities that you personally prefer. The above chart lists some possible activities, but there are hundreds of options. Ask which activities are best for helping students achieving a given goal. Many factors come into answering that question, but careful reflection about this can help you turn a mediocre lesson into an unforgettable one.
Remember that the goal of a great learning activity is to help individuals make significant progress in reaching one or more specific learning goals. A random but fun activity may increase student engagement, but it will do little to help learners reach the stated goals.
Assessing the Learning Environment
Notice that these four areas transcend learning context, delivery system, and even educational approach. They are almost always part of a great formal or informal learning experience. As such, we can analyze learning environments with these categories in mind. It only takes a few minutes to walk through each area, making a quick assessment of how you are doing.
- What is the quality and clarify of the goals?
- What is the quality, accessibility and usefulness of the available content?
- How is formative feedback being frequently used to monitor progress and adjust accordingly?
- Are the planned learning activities engaging and helpful for students to achieve the stated learning goal(s)?
Jot down your responses and, if you are confident enough, invite learners to do so as well. Use that data to refine your lesson or learning experience. While there are other significant factors in designing effective learning experiences, these four are an excellent start and enough to help take your traditional, blended, or online course to the next level. Give them a try and let me know how they work for you.