Saturday, March 26, 2016

Weighing--and Weighting--our Options

As part of his workshop on problem-based learning last Thursday, Dr.  Mark Serva, a professor of information systems  at the University of Delaware, discussed a variety of issues relating to course design in general, whether using a problem-based format or not.  One question he raised that made me stop and think perhaps more than any other was, “How do we spend our class time?”
The following options were listed:  
  • Content knowledge
  • Design and creativity
  • Real-world context
  • Communication skills
  • Student intrinsic motivation
  • Hands-on skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Disciplinary integration
  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Self-directed learning
All must be present to some degree.  The tough question is which ones are more important than others?  

For any given class, the options (developed by Jonathan Stolk and Robert Martello of Olin College) can total  no more than 100%.  So if we value critical thinking, for instance, at 20%, then we have to devalue something else to maintain the 100% total. There was rich discussion about what percentage we would give to each when designing a course, as well as what percentage we might give to them when planning any individual class session.
To me this discussion brought home the point that we often spend all, or most, of our time thinking about what content knowledge we want students to acquire, giving much less attention to the other equally--sometimes perhaps more--important nine concepts.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the items in this list.  Would you add any additional options?  Which one(s) would you weight more heavily than others? Why?


  1. I was at the workshop and found this to be a very interesting question. When I think about my classes, I feel that content has to be category with the greatest weight because (1) in General Biology, I am preparing students for the next course in the biology sequence and (2) in upper level electives such as Ecology, this is probably the only exposure students will have to this discipline and so I feel compelled to cover as much content as possible. On the other hand, I have read a lot of literature suggesting sacrificing content to increase students' critical thinking skills, teamwork ability, communication skills, etc. And I agree that these skills are important, maybe as important as content. Many of us talk about producing self-learners, but if we only teach content, how do students learn to be self-learners? I think the answer lies in using creative methods to address all the categories while incorporating content into those methods. The ten categories are not mutually exclusive. Last, I think one has to be judicious in how many of the categories to use at a time; it would be a challenge, and possibly a disaster, to use all ten in single class, but they all could be incorporated over the space of a few weeks, something that would take a lot of careful planning. Dave Royer

  2. Dave, that's a really good explanation of the problem. How do we rise to the challenge but not do so much as to cause the disaster? I guess that's one of the reasons for the trend in flipping the classroom, getting students to learn the content knowledge outside of class so that in-class activities and can deal with more of the other nine. In my writing classes, content knowledge doesn't get the top weight--people can understand what good writing is without necessarily being able to produce it--but the whole class can't be devoted to "hands-on skills." I'm thinking more and more about how to help encourage "self-directed learning," the one you mention, as well as "Intrinsic motivation" which to me overlaps a bit with self-directed learning or at least is a necessary component.