Design Flaws

As I’ve noted before, I adopted a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to my practical ethics classes in Fall 2012: after a summer of planning and preparation, I jumped in to the deep end with two courses structured entirely around groups working on messy, practical problems.

(I’m looking back over my history with PBL in preparation both for a paper I’m writing about it and for a workshop I’ll be conducting later this month.)

By the midpoint of the term, I recognized a serious structural flaw in my design, one that threatened to undermine all learning in my classroom: the two “practical exams” that made up much of each student’s final grade were given equal weight in the gradebook.

I should not have been surprised that students struggled so much with the first exam, but it became clear enough that they were still far from mastering the basics of ethical inquiry. In short, scores on the first exam were quite low, across the board.

Student despair and panic over their already-beleaguered GPAs is not altogether conducive to student engagement and cognitive development.

So, I introduced my first mid-course correction.I presented it as a revision to the syllabus, and discussed the syllabus in ethical terms: while I thought the change would make everyone better off, I could could not and would not impose the change without the unanimous consent of all involved.

(One student commented that he’d’ never heard a syllabus discussed in those terms before, as a contract to which everyone gives at least tacit consent. That discussion may have been the most effective lesson in practical ethics all semester!)

The gist of the change was that I would count only the better of the two practical exams, so each student would get full credit for her or his own high-water mark.

With that change, to which everyone in both classes consented without hesitation, despair and panic were averted, at least temporarily, and the course went on its wild way. It was an imperfect solution, a patch, a kluge, but it served well enough at the time.

One lesson that experience impressed on me was the nature of PBL as an apprenticeship: the first horseshoe out of the fire may not look much like a horseshoe at all, but that would be a poor basis on which to evaluate the potential of a blacksmith-in-training.

I came to think of my courses as having the structure of an upward spiral, in which student go through the same process of grappling with a problem several times, each time with greater attention and sophistication. I also began to develop an evaluation scheme that rewards increasing mastery by giving greater weight to later assignments.

More basically, though, that first experience revealed to me something of what makes the task of course design so devilishly difficult, as I must try to bring too many variables into some kind of happy alignment: students’ prior ability and experience, students’ capacity to learn, student motivation and engagement, the structure of assignments, the kind and degree of support offered to students, the assessment criteria, the grading scheme, and the degree of student control as balanced against instructor control.

Focus on one variable, alter the design to optimize it, and another variable may pop out of alignment.

For a while, I focused on the spiral pattern of the course and on assignment structure and assessment, only to begin asserting too much control over students; courses became regimented, a forced march up the spiral ramp.

This semester just past, I focused on shifting more control to the students, only to bring into focus the pressing need to provide students with some kind of structure to their thinking, a way of helping them to focus their attention without trying to compel them to look here or there. This is what led me, as noted already, to some understanding of the nature and importance of scaffolding in cognitive development.

I start again in a week, two new sections in a slightly compressed Summer term. As I develop scaffolding and put it in place for the students, I find myself wondering what design flaw will come to light next.

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