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The Basic Principles of Instructional Systems Design

In their landmark book, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Supporting Learning and Motivation (2012), the National Research Council of the National Academies states clearly the goal of all learning: expertise. Instructional design, therefore, they point out, must be such that learners develop ‘conceptually rich and organized representations of knowledge that resist forgetting, can be retrieved automatically, and can be applied flexibly across tasks and situations’.

Those who design instructional systems, therefore, must keep that goal in mind as they create their system. Strategies must include both practical experiences for learners to achieve core competencies in each area, as well as theory—the ‘why’ behind the result. With that in mind, here are five basic principles of effective instructional systems design.

1. Instructional Design Should Proceed at an Efficient Pace

Since students need many hours of practice in a skill to achieve expertise, an instructional program should teach material efficiently, encouraging students to practice every chance they get. This goes for e-learning as well as on-site programs.

Getting students quickly to a place at which they can begin to put their knowledge into practice is essential to effective instructional design. Efficiency, points out the Crbook’s authors, is the best way to achieve that goal.

Consider students’ backgrounds as you design material: Look at the students’ background to develop materials that challenge them without overwhelming them. This will help them learn at the fastest rate possible for them.

Include supplementary material: Offer supplementary material for students whose backgrounds or abilities allow them to learn more quickly than the rest of the class. This is especially true for uni e-learning, where extra material in a field about which they are passionate can inspire them to take even more coursework in that field—even to consider graduate-level work or a career in that field.

Add remedial material for struggling students: As you design your course, include some extra material that can help bring struggling students up to speed. Step-by-step explanations in more simplified language, as well as lessons that involve multiple senses, can help guide these slower learners to true understanding.

Use a clear, organised format: An important ingredient in efficiency is the format in which you design the system. Use terminology in plain English—no jargon or complicated wording. Keep the format simple so the material itself is the challenge. Organise the material in a logical sequence that makes sense, depending on the material. For instance, for a history course design, the sequence might be chronological, while for literature, themes might make better sense. Save tangential information for enrichment material. Irrelevant information can distract the student from the main focus of each lesson. Infographics and other visual and audio aids should be easy to see, and easy to understand.

Provide structure: As the material builds in complexity, always relate new material to previously learned material. Point out how the new material relates to the old—and how it points to what’s coming in later lessons. Use outlines and tables to organise hierarchical structures and diagrams to illustrate more complicated relationships among various components of the material.

Use small units to speed up learning: It may be counterintuitive, but people learn better in small chunks than if you ask them to digest a lot of material at once. You might have presented a lot of material, but that portion of the material that the students actually internalize is larger when you use smaller chunks.

2. Instructional Design Should Contextualize Information

When students can relate new information and theories with that which they already know, they can learn faster. Not only that, but they can also apply it better in real life through more situations and tasks.

Use multiple examples: Since not all of your students’ backgrounds and experiences will be similar, a wide range of examples will help get information across. If you are aware of your students’ backgrounds, you can pull examples from situations they might find familiar. For example, if you are teaching French, and you know that a couple of your students are chefs, you can use examples from food culture, such as ‘bon appetit’ to teach the meaning of good (bon) or ‘au jus’ (with juice) to teach the multiple meanings of the preposition ‘au,’ which can mean ‘to the,’or loosely in English, ‘with.’

Use varied formats: Some students learn better from written material; others from infographics and yet others, from videos. As time allows, design your instructional format to include a wide range of formats to better speak to learners’ unique learning styles.

Use a variety of meaning contexts: Without overwhelming your students at one time, teach how the same material may take on different meanings in various contexts. Manners, for instance, can demand one type of behaviour in one context, while another in a different situation. Likewise, vocabulary words, such as ‘stop,’ may have one meaning to a driver, while it takes on a whole other meaning to an organist, who uses ‘stops’ to change the tone quality of the music he plays.

Vary the types of practical applications you offer:When you design a section of a course that contains new vocabulary words, have the students read, speak, and write the new words. Similarly, for a new section of music, have the students repeat it from rote by imitating the teacher’s movements over the instrument (or the vocal technique), and the next time, have them perform the same section of the piece from the written score.

Link theoretical concepts to practical experiences: When you create a section of your curriculum in which you present a set of directions on how to do a task, don’t just have them memorise the steps. Have them practise the skill as you teach it. Make sure you explain to them that it’s OK to mess up, at least at first. As one figure skating coach said to his frustrated beginner students, who fell time after time as they attempted the difficult Axel jump, ‘That’s good. If you’re not falling, you’re not learning’. Even if it’s awkward at first, students internalise concepts better when they utilise more senses. A philosophy professor, when teaching how to detect certain fallacies, would be wise to pass out several popular adverts to her students to see if they can put their theoretical knowledge to work. Memorising truth tables and lists of informal fallacies is one thing. Putting them to work in real life makes that knowledge memorable.

Build new knowledge upon the foundations of existing knowledge: Leverage your students’ life experiences to teach new skills and knowledge. If, for instance, your students are learning how to roll thin, see-through sheets of baklava and they already have learned to roll out plain pie pastry, build on that skill to teach the more difficult skill of rolling out baklava sheets. Similarly, if your students know some Spanish words and are learning French, use the common Latin roots in both to teach new French vocabulary words. Everyday experiences, too, can become powerful tools to help students understand new principles. If they’re learning about the emotional and philosophical implications of a story in literature, have them relate the story to similar real-life experiences.

3. Design Your Course to Be Learner Community-Based

Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The learning community, even in an e-learning or uni e-learning situation, plays a valuable part in the learning process, say the authors of the Hungarian Online University’s book, Basic Principles and Models of Instruction Technology.

Peer feedback is a huge part of learning: Peer feedback not only helps those evaluated better internalize the material, but it helps the evaluators as well. For example, a law student learning how to apply a certain statute in an argument before a judge. If her classmates, as well as the professor, evaluate the strengths of her argument, they will learn to apply those principles to their own argument. In fact, the professor can point out which parts of the peer feedback are valid, which are not, and why. Everyone, not just the person being evaluated, will learn from the experience.

Most real-life positions require teamwork: On the job, when your students will have to apply the knowledge they gained from your course, they will need to learn how to function as a part of a team—and as a part of the larger community inside the organisation or business. They’ll need to learn how to cooperate with each other, learn from each other, and teach each other if the team is to succeed. They will need to learn how to present their ideas with confidence and apply their knowledge as a part of the team. Furthermore, they will need to be able to divide tasks up among themselves as they put their knowledge to work. Learning how to parcel out the steps in performing a task quickly and efficiently is as much a part of mastering the ability as it is to do the task by oneself.

Provide space for student-student connections: In an e-learning situation, it may be more difficult to connect students with one another—but it’s essential to expand one’s learning. Encourage online chat with one another, as well as meetups for those who live near another student. Conversations about the material taught and its practical applications often bear much fruit when it comes to internalising facts and concepts. Not only that, but a course whose design includes such opportunities can forge connections that can help students expand their professional networks to find more job opportunities and the chance to advance in their respective fields.

4. Include Opportunities for Students to Produce Original Content

A course that only requires students to remember information to spit back in a tightly controlled environment, such as a multiple-choice test or fill-in-the-blank does its students a disservice. Instead, within the lesson structure, include opportunities for students to produce original content.

Reaction papers or oral presentations help students organise and understand issues: After a reading assignment, video assignment, or another task, ask the students to write their reaction to the positions presented in the assigned reading. As they discuss the material in their own words, they will internalise the principles presented—even if only to refute them. Do not, however, allow students to produce non-supported gut reactions. Require them to use reasoned arguments combined with the facts they have learned to write their reaction paper or speech. Such opportunities will prepare them for on-the-job situations in which they must make their case for doing a task in a given manner to maximise efficiency.

Encourage students to put their newfound knowledge or skills to work outside of class: In a cooking course, for instance, have the students prepare dishes for their families or roommates. In a political science course, include a requirement that they participate in a campaign or otherwise take part in the political process. Some of these efforts may, like all beginnings, be awkward at best, but producing original work while using the skills they learn in the classroom will pay off huge dividends in the working world.

Incorporate critical thinking exercises in course material: Teach students to look for contradictions and look for explanations and resolutions. Critical thinking is one of the most transferable skills for today’s workforce. Problems that come up usually arise because of contradictions at the core of an argument or at the heart of a theory about how something works. Critical thinking helps students look for those anomalies, discover why something isn’t working, and figure out a way to make it work.

Teach students to look at a problem from multiple points of view: Often a problem can unravel when one takes a different perspective. Shifting perspective will develop cognitive flexibility, which can benefit students greatly when in the workplace. Arguing a point from both a pro and con viewpoint can open up students’ minds to find a third way that avoids the problems inherent in the standard positions, or theories about a given problem. It wasn’t until Einstein learned to ‘think outside the (standard) box’ that he could come up with his theory of relativity.

Create courses that teach students to become lifelong learners: The adage “teach a person to fish, and you’ve fed them for a lifetime” is never so true as in instructional design. Incorporate tried-and-true learning strategies within your course. Teach them to ask questions—never accept the status quo. Pique their curiosity. Once that pump is primed, students will never be the same. They will develop a thirst for knowledge that will keep them at the forefront of their field for a lifetime. Teach them to love the word ‘why’.

5. Create Fair, Well-Thought-Out Evaluation Tools Administered at the Proper Time

The old model of cramming a lot of material into each lesson results in students who cram for tests. This, in turn, relegates the information and skills to short-term memory, and so they are promptly forgotten when the exams are over. That doesn’t sit well with modern employers, who want workers who have internalised the skills, principles, and facts they have learned in their coursework. Instead, provide students with material presented and tested at a pace in which they can internalise the knowledge for a lifetime.

Space out new material and evaluations: Allow plenty of time and opportunities for students to digest new material before you do any large-scale evaluations. Smaller, less-formal evaluations, such as reaction papers, demonstrations, or quizzes spaced out over the course of each topic work better than presenting a large amount of material and then testing students on those huge chunks.

Test your tests: Course design is fluid. If a testing instrument (or some of the components of a given test) are not working, change them. Evaluate student test and quiz results to see if you’re missing something either in your presentation of the material or if certain questions are unfair or unclear. See if spacing out the material in smaller chunks over time will help the students better understand. Look carefully (and ask your students and fellow teachers to do so as well) at your questions to see if rephrasing them might produce better results.

Provide helpful feedback: A simple score tells a student little about how to correct a thought process that led her to the wrong answer. Teachers should provide comments that help the student identify the point where she went off the right track. Commend the student for strategies that are innovative and logical but locate the point at which she went off the track. Partial credit for ‘wrong’ answers that demonstrate some command of the material can help to encourage a student. A calculus professor, for instance, whose student used the right strategy at every step but made a typo or an elementary arithmetic mistake could issue partial credit, because that student has a better grasp of the material than one who made no arithmetic errors, yet failed to show his work or took shortcuts.

Provide immediate feedback: Instructors are some of the busiest people on earth. Piles of papers to grade and records to keep combine to cause some to delay grading papers or issuing feedback. Instead, design courses to have shorter, yet more effective assessments to keep a handle on the workload. Students learn better from feedback soon after the assessment, while the work is still fresh on their minds. Immediate feedback allows students to correct their thought process before it becomes ingrained in their minds.

With a course design that keeps moving at an efficient pace, puts the learning into a practical context, involves the learning community, encourages students to create original content, and provides appropriate, thoughtful feedback, instructors and committees can provide relevant courses that will produce students who can confidently take their place in their chosen field.

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