October 22nd, 2012

Targeted Skill Development: Building Blocks to Better Learning


Teachers have much to teach these days. There’s the standard content knowledge students need to take from their courses, all the while the amount of new information in all our fields continues to grow exponentially. Next, there are all those essential intellectual skills like critical thinking, problem solving, analysis of evidence, argument construction to start the list. Then there are the basic skills many students are missing — like the ability to do college level reading, write coherently and calculate correctly — and all those study skills, like time management, review strategies, attentive listening and good note taking. Lastly, there are the metacognitive skills and the fact that most students aren’t aware of themselves as learners and don’t monitor how they are or are not learning. How in the world can a teacher address all these learning needs in a 15-week course?

The task is impossible, but that doesn’t prevent some teachers from trying and then feeling badly that they didn’t do as much as they should have for students. That is part of what makes teachers excellent, but it’s also part of what wears us out.

I think the solution is targeted skill development. In a thoughtful, systematic way, teachers select and focus on certain skills. In all honesty, I can’t ever remember doing that when I was teaching, but I often think about it now when working with faculty and I have two hours to share the contents of a book that has taken me several years to write. I ask myself, What do faculty most need to know about this material? What knowledge and skills can springboard them to the next level of understanding? What knowledge and skills best motivate and prepare them to learn more on their own?

These are the questions I’m recommending faculty ask themselves about their students. They should begin by thoughtfully considering what knowledge and skills their students don’t have. Yes, in many cases the list will be long. Just as thoughtfully, the next step is to identify the knowledge and skills that are most essential for success with this content and in light of what students will be learning in their next courses. That should make it possible to narrow the list and identify the two or three most important skills which can then be targeted for development in the course.

Few learning skills develop well without explicit instruction. So, once the skills have been identified, we need to plan how they will be developed. We have to stop imagining that learning skills develop just because students are present in a learning environment. How will those targeted skills be emphasized by what happens in class? What kind of teacher and student activities will promote the awareness and development of them? How can their development be incorporated into assignments? What kind of feedback will be offered to improve them? How will progress be monitored? How will they be assessed at the conclusion of the course?

Now what really makes sense and would dramatically improve skill acquisition would be a sequence of courses or a whole program designed with different skills targeted for development across that program of study. Beyond deciding what skills would be developed and when, skills taught early on could be systematically built on in subsequent courses. We don’t do all that badly sequencing content across courses, but we don’t often plan skill development in the same careful way.

What I’m really proposing here is the old divide and conquer routine. No one teacher can do it all. Beyond teaching all the content already included in the course, there are just too many skills that students need to learn. Every teacher should be responsible for part of the needed skill development. Not only would this improve skill development experiences for students, it would make life easier for teachers. They wouldn’t have to confront this impossible and overwhelming learning agenda, but could focus their efforts on a designated set of skills. I’ve been around too long to be very optimistic about that kind of curricular planning occurring, but I can see individual teachers more thoughtfully targeting skills, deciding to focus their efforts on those skills students most need to succeed in the courses they teach.

  • Susan

    This is one of the more succinct and compelling arguments for integrated curriculum development that I have read. There are some good models across higher education where this is already happening. As we move to even more focus on learning outcomes, mapping skills as well as content should prove an efficacious path to better student performance. The critical piece of this from the faculty member's side is to see ourselves as educators as well as disciplinary specialists. None of us need to feel the burden of all that students need to learn, but each of us needs to make a contribution beyond the content we are presenting.

  • Audrey Harrison

    I love your idea of skill development. I can see this as a benefit to planning instruction and would like more assistance in this area.

  • Norman Lorenz, M.Ed.

    With effective student and teacher interaction, relationships that build engagement skills in the classroom such as the aspects identified in this article; critical thinking, problem solving, analysis of evidence, and argument construction, just to name a few, are the tools learners need across all disciplines of education. These in turn become valued across the career paths which are most successful! As colleagues, working together to integrate course curriculum will further foster this success and our economy will become directly influenced! What a dream!

  • Sharon Stevenson

    Maryellen, I totally agree with Susan who commented above that your presentation was excellent. I'm a non-teacher in Peru but am designing an online course structure for Peruvians who have had little or poor education and opportunities to be guided in their learning. However, I am coming to believe that learning will be greatly accelerated when parents not only read to and with their very young children, but when those parents are enabled by additional written material to improve their own learning/thinking skills together with helping their children master them.

    How? you ask. My beginning ideas in this direction concern making online bedtime stories available but with supplemental pages for Moms & Dads to give them ideas of what kind of questions, comparisons, contrasts they might ask about and point out to their children. And here in Peru, because so many poorer families have few reading skills, the written/illustrated story books would come with downloadable MP3 recordings of expressive spoken versions of the stories. Interspersed would be friendly questions like, "OK, now what else could Little Red Riding Hood have said to the wolf at this point do you think?" "What would YOU have said to the wolf? "Have YOU ever crossed the street when you weren't supposed to like Jonny in the story?" "What do you think you would need to learn in school to be a train conductor like Mr. Apple? etc.

    (Your next question must be, if these Peruvians are very poor, where do their parents get a computer? Well, in Peru we have a plethora of "public computer stalls" with an hour of computer time now available for as little as 20¢. For the home I have already found little battery operated speakers for $4 so that Mom and/or Dad could sit and listen and read WITH their kids, to learn right along with them. All that's missing is to find the cheapest usable MP3 player available.)

    Ideally, the parents or whoever downloaded the spoken versions of the stories could choose between a straight story-telling version or the "enhanced" version with questions and comments. Perhaps the parents could be encouraged to download both versions. They would be able to listen to the stories first without the children to get an idea of the kind of questions/comments they could interject when they listened to the straight story version later with their kids.

    All that to say I believe your "…essential intellectual skills like critical thinking, problem solving, analysis of evidence, argument construction to start the list…" based on READING with Understanding and Thinking should and can begin in the home, an opportunity that has been neglected certainly here in Peru and from what I read, back home in the States as well.

  • Old school

    I believe it's not the professor's job to teach students basic skills that they should have learned long ago.

  • Mick Charney

    Good article! Thank you.

  • Scott CEO Ginkgotree

    Targeted skill development is a great idea! You could even create a packet of targeted digital source material with http://www.ginkgotree.com. We provide an easy solution for building digital course materials that include copyright clearance.

    • Annie

      This is an excellent resource! I have been wondering how I might design a way to capture a 'packet' of resources and find the use of multi-media resources so vital to engage my students' curiosity to construct knowledge around an issue or topic in education. Thanks for posting.

      • Scott

        See my reply below.

  • Scott

    Thanks, Annie. Feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions or comments. My contact info is at the bottom of the Ginkgotree site.

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  • Jan

    This post really got my creative juices flowing. At my institution, we have a four-semester sequence of courses that have a huge content list and a huge skills list. Each of us (8 different people teach in the sequence) try to get to what we think is most important for our student, once we realize that we can't do it all… I wonder if we can create a more structured curriculum where the content stays the same, but the skills we teach with that content get prioritized in each class… It could be a tricky conversation to have in my department, but it might go a long ways towards helping us do a better job teaching effectively… thank you!

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