Design Learning To Promote Mastery Rather Than Failure

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Jan 16, 2019

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 decline.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

INSIGHTS

Resiliency in the Now Normal: Spending for Sustainability and Scale is Key

Published By Carrie O'Donnell
on Apr 22, 2021

Earlier in April, Matt Reed proposed the best use of the $12B included in President Biden’s infrastructure legislation for updating infrastructure in community colleges, would be “ways that situate colleges to be more resilient in future economic headwinds.”  For those of you unfamiliar with Reed, not only does he write the “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog on Inside Higher Ed, nearly 18 years of his career has been in community college leadership positions. Dr. Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College, fondly refers to him as “Dean Dad.” In fact, Kim penned a response in support of the infrastructure spending recommendations Reed made in his post and offered an additional recommendation of his own: learning designers. 

Learn While Doing: Course Innovations in Real Time

Published By Brett Christie, PhD
on Mar 30, 2021

We recently learned there are approximately 20,000 learning designers in the US compared to over 1,500,000 faculty creating online courses. Additionally, a study we conducted last summer with 475 higher ed faculty revealed: Nearly half were simply mirroring their face-to-face instruction, Only 22% were designing their courses differently for online, More than 40% had never taught online or had only taught online for one to two terms. But here’s an even more startling fact: faculty were spending nearly 49 hours prepping an online course for the first time. Converting an existing course for online? Twenty-three hours.