All students start college with high hopes and ambitions for successfully attaining a degree, but reality sets in quickly once students are actually on campus — getting to graduation is difficult.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 60 percent of college students complete their degree. Attaining a degree becomes even more difficult for students with specific challenges. Of all Pell Grant recipients, only 51 percent complete their degree, according to a 2015 report by The Education Trust, while a longitudinal study by the Pell Institute shows that 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students are likely to graduate within six years. Additionally, a separate report by The Education Trust found that in 2010, 40 percent of black college students had graduated within six years.
For these groups of students, learning challenges are often more significant, and restricting, than those faced by their classmates. For institutions serving these students, the need to find new ways to help students overcome these challenges has never been greater.
Instructional design is a crucial ingredient when it comes to bringing those students up to speed. According to Niki Bray, an assistant professor and instructional designer at the University of Memphis School of Health Sciences, the most common problem faced by low-income students is lack of prior knowledge of subject material and of college-level learning in general.
While some of Bray’s most prepared students have been to academic camps or had tutoring before college, their low-income peers have had very little support through their K-12 years. When those students come to class, they are often playing catch-up.
“Prior knowledge is the number one determining factor in learning,” says Bray. “The more prior knowledge they have, the more capable students are of being able to learn more.”
Students who are ready for college have already built a schema to which they can attach more information. Those who don’t have that prior knowledge have to build a brand-new schema, which is a difficult cognitive process.
In order to improve these students’ chances of completing their degrees, Bray must help them quickly build their knowledge base so they can learn as quickly and easily as their more privileged peers.
To get them up to speed without overwhelming them, Bray uses several instructional design tools: chunking, scaffolding, and metacognition.
Making information relatable to all students
“Chunking,” says Bray, is “giving students little bits of pieces of information at a time — digestible content — building upon that, and helping to build a schema.”
For example, Bray teaches her students, who are future physical education and health teachers, about motor learning in children. There is a broad body of knowledge about motor learning these students must master, but it can be broken down into three stages: cognitive, associative, and automatic.
Bray chunks that information by only teaching one of the three stages at a time, breaking each one down so that it is a learning object, providing examples, and asking students to apply their new knowledge before moving to the next piece of information.
“It’s just taking one piece of content that most people would run through quickly without taking a breath and understanding that you should stop after each major concept to have students do something with that new knowledge,” she explains. “You might then touch back on things that they already have prior knowledge of. For example, if students have a niece, or a little sibling, or children, they might think about what those children looked like when they first started playing a particular sport.”
Making a connection to prior knowledge is important, she say, because it allows students to learn more quickly and activates whatever schemas they already have.
The same philosophy can be applied to students who come from diverse backgrounds; instructional designers can use examples from different cultures, or even areas of interest, to relate to existing knowledge.
“Being able to relate to students’ personal experiences is all about developing and building schemas,” says Bray. “You can give them choices. So if you have an athlete in your classroom and you’re teaching fractions, you could give students the opportunity to choose to work with fractions in a cooking example, or with fractions in a sports example.”
Related reading: Prepare a Solid Instructional Designer Job Description for Higher Ed
Supporting learners when they need help
Designing a scaffolded learning practice, says Bray, is simply a matter of giving learners help when they need it, typically at the beginning of a course, and then withdrawing those supports as the students begin to learn the material.
She gives the example of a math class in which an instructor may give an example of how to solve a problem early on in a class.
“Initially, you may provide a work example of how to solve any problem, in this case a math problem,” Bray says. “Then as they begin to grasp the concept, you begin to provide less of those scaffolds. Maybe you wait before you give them the help.”
In an online, adaptive course, that scaffolding might take the form of hints that prevent students from getting stuck. These supports are crucial for students who are just starting to learn new material.
“Novice learners need totally different things than advanced learners,” she says. “They need more parameters, whereas more advanced learners are able to move quickly to more complex abstract-type thinking, problem-solving challenges.”
Teaching learners to think about learning
Students who aren’t prepared for college may lack an awareness of their own learning processes. Instructional designers can help them better understand the way they learn, says Bray, by incorporating simple questions into a course.
In a face-to-face course, it might be as simple as asking, “What did you learn today?” or, “How would you apply your new knowledge?” In an online course, it may mean incorporating a feature that asks students how sure they are about an answer to a question before telling them what that answer is.
“If they say, ‘I’m absolutely positive,’ and they missed it, you know that’s going to cause them to stop and think, ‘Wow, I thought I knew this,’” says Bray. “They’ll realize their degree of awareness about what they know and what they don’t know.”
Bringing new learners up to speed using instructional design
Bray’s job is to stop the cognitive overload that might threaten to overwhelm an underprepared student before it even begins. The tools of instructional design allow her to do that for her students, and for those in the 11 courses she’s adapting for her colleagues at the School of Health Sciences.
“You just can’t underestimate the value of good design. It is like the foundation of a home,” she says. “Once universities really start to make the commitment toward instructional design, and the application and use of these principles, then we’re really going to see that gap close. It’s not that students can’t learn. It’s just that they come in with different prior knowledge.”
Read more in this whitepaper: The Convergence of Instructional Design and Technology-Enabled Teaching
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.