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.