Curiosity is like a spark plug. It ignites thinking which is a prerequisite for learning. It propels, in short bursts. Interest is like a turbo charger. It accelerates and sustains forward thinking and effort. (For more about curiosity, interest and the brain, read ZEST)
If spark plugs ignite the engine and turbos propel forward movement, this begs two questions: Where are we going? How will we get there?
Where are we going? Destination Learning
Sometimes the learning journey emphasizes the destination. Most courses have some aspects of a destination focus. These are the non-negotiable components of content that students are expected to learn and know by the end of the course. Examples include foundation concepts in introductory courses, content-driven learning like the pulmonary system in an anatomy class, or the rules of DR & CR in accounting. In plain English, it’s the “stuff” that has to be learned.
Although I believe destination learning, or content, often drives too much of what we do, there will always be a need for teachers to specify some amount of the content “coverage.” In these cases, students’ interests can be integrated by allowing them some choice in how they demonstrate that learning (papers, projects, presentations, skits, role play, video, website, Pinterest page, Prezi, etc). To continue with the sparkplug, turbo, transportation analogy: The teacher specifies the destination city. The students choose how they will get there.
Think of the algorithms used by Google maps, Mapquest, Siri, or Waze. You put in the start and end points and the system makes recommendations, accounting for tolls, scenic routes, traffic avoidance, and speed traps. Similarly, teachers know the geography of our content. We know where learning might get derailed and breakdowns of understanding occur. We can help students navigate their chosen route and mode of transportation if we invest time and effort getting to know them. The payoff is that we can recommend the routes best suited for their learning; it becomes a personalized, meaningful trip.
To implement, it’s helpful to begin by providing choices from a pre-determined menu:
- Choose one assessment that you’d be most comfortable receiving and assessing in alternative formats.
- Think carefully about the kinds of deliverables that will best allow students to demonstrate the kind of learning you want them to achieve.
- Consider the kinds of deliverables students would be most interested in producing.
- Consider whether individual effort or collaboration is more appropriate.
- Develop one rubric that reflects your expectations. It’s most straightforward for students and teacher if it’s the same rubric across deliverables.
- Consider when is most appropriate, “final” assessments are necessarily best. These principles apply to formative and summative assessment.
How will we get there? Transit Learning
Sometimes the emphasis is on process learning. Continuing with the travel analogy, the focus is on the mode of transportation: boat, plane, car, train, taxi, or virtual travel. How we’re traveling is more important than where we end up. A few examples of transit learning: employing the scientific method, making computations, performing technical analyses, developing technical skills, conjugating verbs, or analyzing text. In each case, the process and procedural steps are the learning focus. Teaching and learning a process can be accomplished across a variety of settings and scenarios. It’s the steps and thinking method (whether we’re on a train, bus, or in a car) that is key; the final destinations could be different across students (some end up in NYC, others in Philly).
- A common example of transit learning: assigning a paper in a writing class, but leaving the topic open to student choice. The process of writing is the focus but students can apply the skill different contexts.
- Personal interest & connections to topics can be integrated into class-wide lessons and examples. See Big Questions post for assignment and use in microeconomics principles.
Most courses shift between both types of learning. For the brave, or for those with a high tolerance for ambiguity and messiness, destination and transit learning strategies can be combined in one course for a very individualized learning experience. I’ve done this in classes of about 60 students. My motivation- eliminating the dreary slog to finals week that inevitably occurs after Thanksgiving. It was a bit chaotic the first time, but it’s gotten easier to manage. The payoff- students own their projects. They’re working solo or on group projects of their choosing. We all learn about different and interesting things as they share what they’ve discovered and produced. The last weeks of class are engaging and fun.
- The more open-ended the range of topics, the more important it is to have students define the connection(s) between their topic and the course/content.
- Provide a menu of delivery options: paper, presentation, facilitated discussion, website, Pinterest page, virtual scrapbook, video/movie, skit, poster, etc. It may be simpler to provide a narrow range of choices at first.
- Develop one generic rubric for all deliverables, instead of multiple rubrics dependent on product format. It makes life easier for students and it forces the teacher to identify broad learning outcomes that can be demonstrated in a variety of ways.
Even if you’re not interested or willing to go that far, keeping the principles of destination and transit learning in mind leads to increased student engagement. ZESTY learning occurs when students share control of process, product or both, as appropriate to the discipline, student abilities, maturity, and instructor’s ability to tolerate a messier, less controlled environment. If you would like a copy of the student project plan or a sample rubric, please email me: LAP21@psu.edu