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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
One pedagogical trend in both in-person and online learning is student-centered instruction, the idea that students who control their own learning have better learning experiences and better outcomes.
This idea appeals to our democratic impulses: who is more equipped to guide their own learning than the adult learners themselves? And in fact, online education is often touted as better than face-to-face education precisely because it is better able to customize the learning experience for each individual. However, the evidence suggests that this “advantage” may be more apparent than real. While learners enjoy being in the driver’s seat, they are not so great at navigating the roads.
John McCarthy at Edutopia offers a typically attractive description of student-centered learning in a K-12 environment:
Give students the chance to take charge of activities, even when they may not quite have all the content skills. Students are accomplished education consumers. The child in third grade knows three years of teaching and learning, and the high school sophomore has experienced ten years….Veteran students, like experienced teachers, know what types of learning experiences work best for themselves.
The Education Alliance at Brown University has a similarly sunny assessment of student-centered learning for ELL adults (“Students become self-confident, self-directed and pro-active”). The Education Alliance recommends that instructors “have students generate a list of topics they wish to study or research,” and “allow students to select their own reading material.”
The world of online learning similarly celebrates student-centered learning, identifying it as one of the key advantages to moving to an online system. Within the e-learning world, resources that provide a student-centered learning experience are characterized as having high “learner control,” whereby students choose their own paths through the material, skip examples or exercises, and perhaps even select the way they want to access the material (such as through audio or text).
Online students certainly do enjoy the power to navigate their own way through the content. The evidence suggests, however, that there are only three ways in which giving students control can increase learning.
Students benefit from having the ability to learn material at their own pace. Learners can safely be trusted with the accelerator and the brakes. When someone can stop a video to take notes or reread a paragraph or take as long as they need to complete an exercise, they learn more than those who are forced through the material at the teacher’s pace. This is hardly surprising—when students imperfectly understand a concept, they should be able to slow down. (It’s worth noting that both old and new media generally allow this type of control, with the exception of an in-person lecture.)
Experienced learners, like experienced drivers, do well in learner-controlled environments. According to Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard Mayer in E-learning and the Science of Instruction, learners who are experienced in the subject area of the course tend to make good choices about what and how to learn.
Learners benefit from control when they need the freedom to make mistakes. Clark and Mayer offer the example of a course developed by Raytheon Professional Services, which simulated a mechanical problem in a car. Learners had high control in that they were able to choose tools in any order to diagnose the problem. The learner’s sequence of choices was then compared to that of an expert. If high learner control is needed to replicate high control in the real world, then learning resources should give learners the appropriate experience.
Conversely, there is one crucial reason why learner control can derail beginners: learners do not, in general, know what they know and what they don’t know. Clark and Mayer report a study by K.W. Eva, J. P. W. Cunningham, H.I. Rieter, D. R. Keane, and G.R. Norman, in which medical students’ assessments of their own knowledge were evaluated. There was almost no correlation between how well students thought they would do on a future test and how well they actually did. Furthermore, students’ ability to assess their own knowledge accurately did not increase over the time they were in medical school. On the other hand, a study by Walczyk and Hall in 1989 showed that when learners worked through examples and practice questions, they were better able to predict how they would do on a test. The takeaway? Make the instructional support of exercises mandatory, because learners are not very good at determining how much practice they will need before they’ve actually had the practice.
Because learners tend to enjoy control, Clark and Mayer propose a compromise: having a navigational system in which the default “continue button” leads to more practice and examples, while a navigational bar allows learners the control to move to any part of the course.
Under this scenario, learners would have to make an active decision to skip the examples and practice—the material that, research shows, leads to better learning outcomes. If they follow the default navigation, they’ll get the practice that leads to mastery.
Bottom line: don’t be seduced by the rhetorical appeal of designing courses that put the learners in the driver’s seat. No matter how good it sounds to give learners control, the reality is they need to be free to devote all their mental resources to learning the new content, not to figuring out how to navigate their way through unfamiliar terrain. Let them take the course at their own speed, but show them clearly which way to go.
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