April 15, 2013 Leave a comment
I ended my last post with a brief discussion of David Kolb’s learning styles. Although his theory is somewhat controversial because of its lack of supporting research, it is still widely used and taught. Kolb heralded the idea of experiential learning, and defined learning as a process of gaining knowledge through transformational experiences. He is considered a pioneer in advocating a problem-centered and authentic approach, instead of a subject-centered approach, to teaching adults. So, in this post I’ll discuss methods for creating experiential and authentic learning experiences for adult learners, drawing from constructivism. However, before I delve into experiential learning, I’ll cover the frameworks developed by two of the most well-known cognitive theorists in the fields of education and instructional design, Benjamin Bloom and Robert Gagné.
It’s probably safe to assume that most instructional designers and trainers have heard of Bloom’s taxonomy. The taxonomy is used primarily for creating learning objectives for educational curriculum, including workplace training programs. The taxonomy is divided into three categories of learning: cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling), and psychomotor (rote physical skills). Although workplace training can involve all three of these categories of learning, most instructional designers tend to focus on the cognitive taxonomy (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998). Below is an illustration of the revised taxonomy (by a student of Bloom’s in the mid-1990s). I’ve added some examples on the left and some verbs that can be used in objectives on the right. You’ll see that the more experiential categories in Bloom’s taxonomy—apply, analyze, evaluate, and create—are considered “higher order thinking skills.”
Gagné’s performance categories and instructional events are also well known in the field of instructional design. Gagné proposed that there are five categories of human performance and nine instructional events that should guide instructional design. Although research continues about the effectiveness of various instructional methods, particularly with the growth of neuroscience, Gagné’s theory provides instructional designers and trainers with a reliable, and widely accepted, way of designing learning programs (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998). Below I’ll describe the five performance categories and nine instructional events, and then list in a table some of the instructional methods that map up to each category and event.
Gagné’s five performance categories (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998):
- Verbal information – Also called “declarative knowledge,” involves the ability to declare or state information, such as an idea or fact. Reciting a policy or mission statement are examples of this.
- Intellectual skills – Also called “procedural knowledge,” involves the ability to accomplish tasks (simple or complex) through following rules, concepts, and procedures. Using APA style guidelines to write a paper is an example of this.
- Cognitive strategies – Also called “strategic knowledge,” involves the skills to learn, think, and remember. Cognitive strategies enable us to determine which declarative information and procedures we need to perform a certain task. Determining an approach to take to complete a project or solve a problem are examples of cognitive strategies.
- Attitudes – Involves internal states of mind that influence our behavior. Attitudes are often shaped by personal experiences and outside influences, and can be hard to change. Views about money or how to treat others are examples of attitudes.
- Motor skills – Involves using our bodies to accomplish something. A task involving motor skills can only be improved through practice, often through rote drills and repetition. Learning to type or ride a bicycle are examples of motor skills.
Gagné’s nine instructional events (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998):
- Gain attention
- Inform learner of objective(s)
- Stimulate recall of prior learning
- Present material to be learned
- Provide learning guidance
- Elicit performance (practice)
- Provide informative feedback
- Evaluate learner performance
- Help learners retain and apply information
The cognitivist theories of both Bloom and Gagné are considered “classic” in the field of instructional design and are still very much in use today, even as instructional designers move toward more constructivist models for designing learning events (i.e., authentic , experiential, and problem-based). Cognitivist strategies of instructional design are particularly useful for teaching knowledge and skills that are new to learners (Cooperstein & Kocevar-Weidinger, 2004). Techniques such as advance organizers, chunking, whole-parts-whole instruction, metaphors, and mnemonics are great for helping learners organize and remember information that is new to them. However, more and more, instructional designers are using constructivist techniques in workplace learning programs because they realize that not only do adult learners have a lot of experience and prior knowledge to apply, but also that they expect that training will help them solve real problems they are experiencing. Adult learners also expect to actively work on problems during a training session, not just sit there and watch someone else perform a task or listen to long lectures about concepts and principles. They want and expect experiential, authentic learning experiences. For example, they want to actually use new software during training in the same way they’ll use it back on the job, or actually practice making decisions about complex problems in an environment where they can make mistakes and receive feedback.
Kolb suggests that there are four steps in an experiential learning event, which instructional designers can use when designing learning programs (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012):
- Concrete experience – Full involvement in new experiences.
- Observation and reflection – Observing and reflecting on new experiences from many different perspectives.
- Formulation of abstract concepts and generalizations – Creating concepts that organize observations into logical theories.
- Testing new concepts in new situations – Using theories to make decisions and solve problems.
E-learning courses present a challenge for instructional designers who want to create authentic, experiential learning experiences. But, I recently came across a great example of experiential learning in an e-learning course I reviewed. After covering some foundational concepts using video of models/experts, the designer presented real-life problem scenarios that learners needed to respond to. For each problem, learners were exposed to several different perspectives and asked to reflect on them all before deciding how to respond. After learners made a choice and acted on it (in a simulated situation), they received specific feedback and coaching. There were about ten scenarios presented, and each one helped learners discover concepts and generalizations that could be applied to the next situation. This was one of the best authentic learning experiences I’ve seen in an e-learning course recently, and it’s a good example of the constructivist method of problem-based learning.
Constructivist instructional strategies are based on the idea that learners should discover and experience for themselves why performing a task or solving a problem in a certain way is effective, instead of merely being told why, therefore encouraging higher order thinking skills and greater motivation to transfer. Instructional principles derived from constructivism include the following (Wilson, 1996):
- Anchor learning activities to a larger task or problem, establishing relevance.
- Support learners in taking ownership for problem or task (i.e., WIIFM).
- Design an authentic task.
- Design the task/problem to reflect the complexity and context of the learner’s environment.
- Give learners freedom to develop their own problem-solving processes.
- Design learning to support and challenge learners.
- Encourage testing ideas from multiple perspectives and contexts.
- Provide opportunity for reflection on both content and learning process.
Problem-based learning is being used more and more in workplace learning programs because it teaches employees to think critically and enables them to grapple with complexities that they would encounter in real life. Instead of being told what to do or how to solve a problem, learners are coached and guided to examine different approaches and solutions. But, in order for problem-based learning to be effective, instructional designers need to make sure they understand the real problems employees face, or will face, on the job and in what contexts. They also need to be able to construct problems that realistically represent the complexity-level of the problems learners encounter in their day-to-day work (Kolodner, Hmelo, & Narayanan, date unknown). This requires a lot of front-end analysis and input from those who have a full understanding of how the new skills or knowledge will be used.
Can experiential methods be used within the confines of classic learning theory (i.e., Gagné and Bloom)? I’ve seen many discussions in various online professional forums questioning whether designing learning according to Gagné’s nine events is still relevant and effective (some say it’s “cookie cutter” and “boring”). With some creativity, instructional designers can find ways to make Gagné’s method less formulaic , expository, and subject-centered by designing courses around authentic problems and using more constructivist techniques.
Cooperstein, S.E. & Kocevar-Weidinger, E. (2004). Beyond active learning: a constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review, 32:2, pp. 141 – 148.
Desimone, R. L., Werner, J. M., & Harris, D. M. (2002). Human resource development. Mason, OH: Thomson Learning.
Gagné, R.M. (1992). Principles of instructional design. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston
Knowles, M. S., Swanson, R. A, & Holton, E. F. (2011). The adult learner, seventh edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
Kolodner, Hmelo, & Narayanan. (date unknown). Problem-based learning meets case-based reasoning. Retrieved from: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/projects/lbd/pdfs/pblcbr.pdf
Rothwell, W. J. & Kazanas, H. C. (1998). Mastering the instructional design process: A systematic approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wilson, B.G. (1996). Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design. City, State: Educational Technology Publications.