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.
What is an abstract?
An abstract is a concise summary of a research paper. It is often said that an abstract is like a summary of a story wherein you give away the ending. Writers must bear in mind that the abstract will be read by students and researchers to help guide their decisions about whether to read the article or not, and so the abstract should make sense on its own, without the need to refer to outside sources or even to the article that it is summarizing.
Abstracts are short: often numbering between 100 to 250 words in length. I often remind my students that there is limited space in an abstract, and so we must remain staunchly focused on the primary purpose of the abstract, which is to summarize our study, its methodology, and its findings.
With this in mind, I have begun teaching a basic five-sentence model for writing an abstract. I have outlined this model below.
The Five-Sentence Model:
In the five sentence model, the first sentence establishes the general issue, the second sentence provides more specific detail about the issue, and then, if possible, segues into the purpose of the study. The third sentence briefly describes the study’s methodology. The fourth sentence briefly outlines the study’s findings, often providing some specific statistical data, and the fifth and final sentence provides a brief statement of the study’s implications for society, policy, or research.
I have included a colour-coded exemplar below.
In recent years, high-profile fatalities involving school-aged pedestrians crossing the street at designated crosswalks have elevated the issue of pedestrian safety, especially with respect to highly vulnerable pedestrians. While Section 136(1) of The Highway Traffic Act clearly outlines the requirement to stop at posted stop signs, little is known about the average driver’s propensity to comply with this law. This study gained insight into this question by observing motorists as they approached a suburban stop sign, and then coding their behaviour into one of three categories: “full stop,” “rolling stop,” or “slow and go.” The study’s findings suggest that the majority of drivers do not comply with the requirement to stop at stop signs, with more than one in four drivers almost completely disregarding the stop sign. These findings suggest a need to solicit greater compliance rates amongst Ontario drivers with respect to Section 136(1) of the HTA.
Sentence Number and Objective:
1st: Establishes the general Issue.
2nd: Provides more specific detail about the issue, then segues into the purpose of the study.
3rd: Briefly describes the study’s methodology.
4th: Briefly outlines the study’s findings, often providing some specific statistical data.
5th: A brief statement of the study’s implications for society, policy, or research.
Directions for further study are not explicitly discussed in most abstracts, although they may at times refer to the general need to conduct more research in a certain area.
Breaking through an Episode of Dysfunctional Procrastination
Do you suffer from dysfunctional procrastination? If deadlines paralyze you, then you might be the way I was when I was a teenager. I certainly know what it's like to experience anxiety about looming deadlines, overdue assignments, and growing task lists. It can be paralyzing. When I was younger, dysfunctional procrastination essentially crippled me and set profound barriers to the possibilities available to me in life.
If this is the case with you, then I've got some personal advice that I would like to share with you. Here it is.
The best approach to to confronting dysfunctional procrastination is to just set yourself a task of doing something small... something quick. This could be just opening up an assignment and reading it.
Then (and this is the key to truly breaking through the anxiety of dysfunctional procrastination) you trick yourself into doing just a little bit more than your initial small goal: perhaps you might just answer one question within an assignment. You then experience just a little bit of a rush associated with doing more than your initial goal.
Now you've felt the rush. The high. So you do that again: you set another small goal, you do it, and perhaps you go just a little beyond your goal. You feel another rush. Repeat.
Before you know it, you break through your anxiety and you get into a flow state.
The Bright Side of Dysfunctional Procrastination: Work-Ahead Motivation
If you suffer from dysfunctional procrastination, then you may actually experience the benefit of the opposite syndrome: work-ahead motivation.
Think for a moment about the satisfaction you would get from getting all of your Christmas shopping done... in November! It would feel great, right? You would be done early, you would avoid the rush, the worry, the crowds, the stress, etc.
Now think about doing the exact same shopping... in late December! It's the exact same work, but it would feel like an anxious rush, with lots of stress and very little enjoyment or satisfaction.
However, unless you were to actually try doing all of your shopping in November, you would never ever come to realize how good it can feel. You would likely just think of Christmas shopping as inherently stressful.
It's the same with school work.
If you suffer from dysfunctional procrastination, then I would encourage you to pick one course to work ahead on. I mean ludicrously ahead: weeks or even months ahead. Let yourself experience how it feels to do school work without the weight of crippling anxiety hanging on your shoulders. If you're at all like me, that approach will open up a whole new world of productivity and possibility.
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Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.