After over a decade in academia I have noticed the trend that the diversity of students in my courses has dramatically increased. I am not simply referring to race or gender, however. I have seen a rise in non-traditional students (adult-learners). While many of my students come directly out of high school, many don’t. I have more and more students who have had careers, served in the military, etc. Adult learners can be very different than the traditional college student, one who is straight out of high school. Additionally there has been a dramatic rise in the diversity of college preparedness among my students, especially those arriving straight from high school. This increased diversity means that when we design courses and course materials in college, we need to remember to design them so that they engage all of our students.
Individualization and Learning Styles
Many students today have considerably more real-world experience than do traditional college students thirty years ago. Let’s look at the adult learners. They have been on their own in the world and therefore are often have a better understanding of their personal interests and abilities. Overall, this means that they are best served in a course when they are able to select tasks which interest them. According to Ausburn (2004), that there “…is the growing expectation and demand by adult learners for learning options, choices, and personalization” (p. 335). Being able to individualize the course material allows the adult learners to best utilize their strengths while at the same time focusing on their interests. As any teacher knows, regardless of the type of student, when the student is interested in what they are learning, their performance improves dramatically.
When we talk about individualization, I believe that it is important that we also talk about learning styles. Different students have different preferred learning styles. As Moallem (2007) notes, “…many studies show that matching student learning styles with instructional strategies improves learning” (p. 238). Having individualization opportunities is important, if those opportunities do not encompass different learning styles, there can be a mismatch between the students abilities and the instructional material.
Creating opportunities for varied learning styles can be quite difficult. In fact, some instructional designers do not think that the learning style of the students need to be considered. Rather, as Moallem (2007) points out, “…some instructional designers and educators argue that content and expected outcomes of learning must decide what strategies should be used to deliver instruction, rather than matching instruction to individual learning styles” (p. 238). These designers view the course as requiring certain techniques in and of itself, rather than customizing those techniques to the students learning styles.
Clearly there is a happy middle ground here. When possible, I believe that course content should be individualized and customized to the learning styles and interests of the students. I teach an introductory chemistry course which is mainly designed for students going into nursing or related fields. As such, I have incorporated a lot of medical science topics and assignments into the course in an effort to spark the student’s interest in the material. Additionally we have hand-on laboratory exercises, group problem-solving sessions, short lectures, discussion, etc. All of these activities are designed to engage different groups of students.
There are some topics that I discuss in the class that do not have easy connections to material of interest to the students. Some topics are highly theoretical and do not lend themselves to different learning styles. These topics are important in the scope of the course so they must be taught. In these instances, I have to let these topic dictate how I teach them since customization is not a viable option. Students seem to have less interest in these topics and their performance is a bit reduced.
With the increasing use of technology, however, I have been able to add multimedia into these topics which has helped student performance. I am not a multimedia designer. As such, I am in a position where I have to wait for someone to design and release materials that relate to my course topics. Kulasekara, Jayatilleke, and Coomaraswamy studied the effectiveness of multimedia technology for explaining complex material in a biology course. While they found that the use of multimedia for explaining complex topics enhancing student learning, that was not all they found (Kulasekara, Jayatilleke, & Coomaraswamy, 2011). According to Kulasekara, Jayatilleke, and Coomaraswamy (2011), “Interactivity built into various design features has allowed learners to actively participate in learning, providing an individualised learning experience. The findings of this study also throw light on designing effective learner-centred multimedia learning material, especially to learn abstract scientific concepts” (p. 125). Not only can multimedia increase student learning, it also can allow the students a more learner-centric approach to the material. For instance, some students might prefer an animation which “shows” the concept while others might choose a more abstract description. Each student, regardless of age or abilities, will ideally be able to choose the option that best suits them thereby improving their retention.
Along these same lines, another research group studied the effectiveness of a general chemistry courses that had been redesigned as a hybrid course from a traditional course (Shibley, Amaral, Shank, & Shibley, 2011). These researchers found that by moving many of the traditional course elements online, and thereby outside of the in class setting, student performance increases dramatically. The researchers moved quizzes, homework assignments, longer lectures, multimedia viewing, etc. online and focused on problem solving, group activities, and small discussion dealing with difficult concepts within the course ((Shibley, Amaral, Shank, & Shibley, 2011, p. 85).
Just like the use of multimedia to allow students to customize the educational resources to their abilities and interests, this redesign of the general chemistry course shows the same features. Outside of class, the traditional and non-traditional students alike can utilize the technologies that will best accentuate their learning. Inside of class, rather than having a long drawn out lecture, the students work in groups on problems that stem from the material of the course as well as real-life problems. This last is especially important for the adult learner. As Snyder (2009) notes, “Adults seek learning that will help them cope with everyday situations… Learning community activities are structured to help members solve real-life problems” (p. 51). Having the students work on activities that benefit them outside of class and on real-world problems inside of class is a win-win for student retention.
Considering all of these findings and studies, why do we see so little movement towards these new techniques. Why don’t we see many courses that offer what the diverse student body needs? Why don’t we see more hybrid courses when it clearly helps our diverse student bodies? While I am sure there is a certain resistance to them among certain faculty in academia, I believe that a bigger issue is in faculty education. As Moallem (2007) notes, “Designing and developing instructional materials that address multiple learning styles and employing various instructional strategies for online learning environments are time consuming and require careful design, development, implementation and evaluation of instruction” (p. 237-238). Herein lies the problem. Most faculty are experts in their field but not experts in teaching. This is why we often see faculty teach material in the same fashion that they were taught. Kanuka (2006) points out that “When instructional designers are pedagogical experts but not content experts—and the instructors are content and research experts but not pedagogical experts—the result is a bifurcation of content and pedagogy” (p. 9). It is my belief that this bifurcation is a lot of the problem that we see in pushing more non-traditional model of education. We need to create faculty who can bridge this design. Faculty who are masters of their field and of andragogy/pedagogy. Without this joint skill, improving best practices in classroom will be difficult.
Ausburn, L. J. (2004). Course Design Elements Most Valued by Adult Learners in Blended Online Education Environments: An American Perspective. Educational Media International, 41(4), 327-337.
Kanuka, H. (2006). Instructional Design and eLearning: A Discussion of Pedagogical Content Knowledge as a Missing Construct. E-Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 9(2), 1-17.
Kulasekara, G. U., Jayatilleke, B. G., & Coomaraswamy, U. (2011). Learner perceptions on instructional abstract concepts in science at a distance. Open Learning, 26(2), 113-126.
Moallem, M. (2007). Accomodating Individual Differences in the Design of Online Learning Environments: A Comparative Study. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(2), 217-245.
Shibley, I., Amaral, K. E., Shank, J. D., & Shibley, L. R. (2011). Designing a Blended Course: Using ADDIE to Guide Instructional Design. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(6), 80-85.
Snyder, M. M. (2009). Instructional-Design Theory to Guide the Creation of Online Learning Communities for Adults. Tech Trends, 53(1), 48-57.