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‘Form’ing learning

Last week I ran a workshop for an online university that is working to improve it’s learning design.  Substantially.  They’re ramping up their staff abilities, and we’d talked about how I could help.  They have ‘content’, but wanted to improve the learning design around this.  While there are a number of steps to take (including how you work with SMEs, the details you attend to in your content, etc), their internal vocabulary talks about ‘knowledge checks’ and the goal was to do those better as they migrate existing courses to a new platform with a suite of assessment types.

So, first of all, my focus was on formative evaluation.  If we take activity-based learning seriously, we need to ensure that there are meaningful tasks set that can provide feedback.  They are fans of Make It Stick (mentioned in my Deeper eLearning reading list), so it was easy to help them recognize that good activities require learners retrieve the information in context, so each formative evaluation should be a situation requiring a decision.

Ok, so not every formative evaluation should be such a situation. But for things that need to be known by rote, I recommend tarted-up ‘drill and kill’. And it became clear, they’re fine at developing standard knowledge checks, it’s the more important ones that needed work.

I started out reviewing the principles, not least because they had a larger audience they wanted to appreciate the background being applied.  Then we moved on to more hands-on work.  First we worked through the different types of assessment types (moving from true/false to more complex assessments like ‘submit and compare’).  We then proceeded to review a first pass to understand the overall course requirements and likely important milestone assessments. We concluded by working through some examples of tough challenges (they’d submitted) and workshopping how to revise them.

There was more behind this, including my understanding more of their context and task, but overall it appeared to develop their understanding of how to take formative evaluation and turn it into an opportunity to truly develop learners in ways that will benefit them after the learning experience.

Of course, focusing on decisions was a key component, and we visited and revisited the issues of working with SMEs. This included getting contexts, and how exaggeration is your friend.  The result is that they’re much better equipped to develop ‘knowledge checks’ that go far beyond knowledge, and actually develop skills that are critical to success after graduation.

This is the type of thinking that organizations from K12 through higher ed and workplace learning (whether corporate, not-for-profit, or government) need to adopt if they’re going to move to learning experiences that actually develop meaningful new abilities.  It’s also about good objectives and more, but what the learner actually does, how they are required to use the knowledge, is critical to the outcome. So, are you ready to make learning that works?

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