A Design Thinking Approach to the Problem of Learning: Using a Learner Profile Study to Gather Data and Revise Instruction
I've blogged before about the importance of gathering student feedback for improving program design and delivery. However, the methods that I discussed in that earlier piece made use of anonymous online class surveys and suggestion boxes to gather student input. These anonymous tools are great for obvious reasons. The security of anonymity allows students to speak frankly and provide input that they might not otherwise be comfortable giving. Having said that, these approaches lack one key feature when observed from within a personalized learning paradigm: namely, the ability to get to know students on an individual basis.
Introducing the Learner Profile
A learner profile is not necessarily a new innovation, but its use is gaining popularity amongst educators, especially in the current pedagogical era that is placing increased emphasis on personalized learning. A learner profile essentially asks students to discuss their interests, their goals, and their learning preferences. However, from the standpoint of getting to know each learner on an individual basis, the learner profile's benefit would be completely negated were it to be anonymous. Thus, getting students to provide genuine input that can truly help educators develop their programs does represent a bit of a challenge, but it is a challenge that can certainly be addressed when approached with sensitivity, tact, and a clear mandate to help each and every student.
Attaining an Understanding of Student Learning Preferences
I think it is both fair and reasonable to suggest that students know best how they prefer to learn. While learning preference may or may not be correlated with learning success, I think it is also fair to say that we could not begin to examine this correlation until we first obtain an understanding of learner preference. I set out to do this at the beginning of the second term of the 2016-2017 academic year. I did it partly out of inspiration from a PD session that I attended during our beginning of term startup, and partly out of inspiration from my students. At that time, my students were somewhat adrift in a veritable sea of learning styles, approaches, and pedagogical ideologies. As someone who not only relies on research to guide my practice, but who also teaches research methods to my students, I naturally set out to apply a field study approach to my analysis of learner preferences. These days, this particular approach might be described as a "design thinking" approach. Call it what you will... I was pretty happy with the results. So happy, in fact, that I repeated my learner profile study this year at the exact same point of the academic year - the first class of our second term. Again, this effort was triggered by an inspiring PD session that kicked off our second term.
Learner Profile Methodology: A Two-Pronged Study
My learner profile study consisted of two diagnostic tools: a survey, followed by an interview. After these two phases were complete, I attempted to code my findings with no particular view to shape or influence the results. I will briefly describe each phase of the study below.
Phase I: The Learner Profile Survey
To implement my learner profile study, I created a short, open-ended Learner Profile in a Google Doc that asked five fairly straight-forward questions. I then shared this document with all of my students over Google Classroom. The Learner Profile asked my students to tell me about themselves, their interests, and their learning preferences. The profile featured the following areas of investigation:
The learner profile was introduced with the following description:
Help me get to know you as a learner: The Learner Profile
Phase II: The Interview
Students were asked to complete the learner profile at home or in class if they failed to complete it at home. I then sat down with each and every student to go over their learner profile with them. I did this primarily to clarify their feedback and to probe deeper into their feedback as well. For example, if a student said that he liked a "hands-on approach" to learning, then I would typically ask that student what he means by a hands-on approach. In that case, I would often ask for examples of what the student has experienced in terms of hands-on learning at any point in his schooling.
I then set about coding and categorizing the feedback that I gathered from my students into the various themes that emerged.
Phase III: Analyzing the Findings
A comprehensive analysis of the data that I collected from this study is definitely deserving of its own blog post, which I will provide in the future after contributing the data gathered from this year's study. However, it is probably safe to divulge the general themes that emerged from last year's study. In no specific order, they are as follows:
A Final Word:
The learner profile is a particularly valuable tool that can be used by teachers to help DIG for student feedback because it can do more for a teacher's professional development and program design than almost anything else a teacher could do. The DIG philosophy highlights the fact that the data gathered from a learner profile can help to i) diagnose problems early on, ii) identify areas of strengths and weakness in students, and iii) generate new approaches for both instruction and assessment. In the final analysis, I feel strongly that the learner profile must serve as the foundation of any genuine attempt to pursue personalized learning in the classroom. Moreover, I believe the profile itself must be followed by a diligent analysis of, and honest reflection upon, the knowledge gained from the effort. The data is right there for the taking - just as long as one is open to gathering it, listening to it, and acting upon it. The learner profile invariably honours the student while informing the teacher, and that, in my view, is a win-win proposition.
If you're a teacher who has an interest in personalized learning, then I would encourage you to explore implementing the learner profile in your program. At the very least, you'll get to know your students better, and, at the very best, you may just reinvent your practice - helping you to become an even more effective teacher. If you would like to give the learner profile a try, you are welcome to use the learner profile document attached below as a starting point. Please feel free to use or revise this document as you wish. If you do give it a try, please do drop me a line to let me know how it goes.
The New Learner Lab
Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.