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.​

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