Learning Theory

Constructivism is a theory used to explain how people know what they know. Constructivism theorists extended work conducted by John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator. Dewey believed education depended on action-knowledge and ideas emerge only in situations where learners have to draw upon their own experiences that have meaning and importance to them. The basic tenet is problem solving is at the heart of learning, thinking and development. The work of developmental psychologist and constructivist theorists such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have long emphasized the need for pre-existing knowledge with which to construct one’s own understanding and meaning of new knowledge (constructivism) and the influence of social interactions on the learning process (social constructivism). A form of social constructivism is the social interaction that takes place during discussion. It is believed that participation in discussion increases a student’s ability to test their ideas, synthesize the ideas of others and build deeper understanding. As people solve problems and discover the consequences of their actions – through reflecting on both past and current experiences – they are able to construct their own understanding. Learning, therefore, is an active process that requires the learner to engage in the learning process. David Ausubel, a cognitive psychologist, further added to the literature in constructivism with his Assimilation Theory of Meaningful Learning. Ausubel compared meaningful learning to rote learning, referring to when a student simply memorizes information without relating that information to previously learned knowledge. The result is new information is easily forgotten and not readily applied to problem-solving situations because it was not connected with concepts already learned. Meaningful learning requires more effort – the student must engage for meaningful learning to occur.

So, with the previous theory as background, let’s return to Fink’s Backward Design, where we started out by thinking about end points – what is it we want the students to take away from our course. The answer to this question forms the basis of the learning goals or in Fink’s model the outcomes (step one). The second step is to then ask the question, what would the students have to do to convince me they have achieved those learning goals? In a competency-based educational program, the course designer also has to keep in mind to which competencies their course is contributing. Remember the CODA standards include the provision that there are outcomes assessment for tracking attainment of program competencies. By answering these questions it helps to guide assessment activities. The third step is to ask, what would the students need to do during the course to be able to do well on the course assessment activities? By answering this question, the faculty member is able to develop appropriate building blocks and course material needed to give the student the tools for success in the course. So what assignments and activities will you use to help students develop the skill sets necessary to successfully pass the assessment measures and achieve the course outcomes (goals). Finally, how will you structure the course in a sequential manner to maximize student learning? Ultimately, everything planned for the course should relate back to the course goals (Table 4). If the assignments, projects, quizzes and tests fail in helping the student to gain the knowledge, skills and values necessary to achieve the course goals, then the course has not done what it set out to do. An example might help to illustrate this. If the goal of a course is to have students analyze and synthesize information but only includes a multiple-choice midterm and final examination as an assessment strategy, is not likely to achieve this goal. Instead, assignments would be built into the course that would provide students opportunities to build their skills in analyzing and synthesizing information. An assignment might involve placing students in peer groups, providing them with a research article and asking them to work through the steps of critical thinking that involve analysis and synthesis. These types of skill building exercises in analyzing and synthesizing information with faculty feedback along the way are more likely to achieve the course goal (outcome) of analysis and synthesis of information.

Table 4. Integrated Course Design.
Integrated course design