March 21st, 2012

Thinking Developmentally: Designing Courses with a Progression of Learning Experiences


Thinking developmentally is one of those instructional design issues that we don’t do often enough. We understand that different learning experiences are appropriate for students at different levels. We expect a higher caliber of work from seniors than from those just starting college. But how often do we purposefully design a progression of learning experiences?

Consider a course that incorporates several different small group learning experiences. We have opted to use groups because we want students engaged, interacting and learning the content collectively. In addition, we want these group experiences to teach students something about working with others—how disagreements can be handled constructively, how work can be divided equitably, how the group can influence what individual members do. Thinking developmentally means that each of these group experiences should be different. Perhaps each one focuses on a different skill or each one requires more sophisticated use of developing skills. This means the order in which they’re experienced matters. Each experience should build on what happened in the previous one.

Or, what about a course where one of the objectives is developing critical thinking skills? We’ve discussed previously in this blog how our disciplines define critical thinking differently. Teachers who aspire to develop critical thinking abilities in their students must start with a clear understanding of what it is they want students to be able to do. Our hypothetical course, like most courses, contains a variety of assignments and activities. The question is what does each contribute to the development of critical thinking skills? Once again order is important, as is how these activities are related and build on each other. We can’t just assume they somehow all work together … well, we can, but the desired outcomes are less assured and more happenstance than if we approach skill development systematically.

Thinking developmentally also should happen across a collection of courses. For individual faculty, it’s probably easiest to start with two courses in a sequence. Whether they are taught by the same professor or two different ones, they offer the opportunity to purposefully develop knowledge and skill sets across a longer time frame. They also make it possible for students to see that courses are not islands but rather connected territories where what they learn in one relates to what they learn in the other. And where what they do in one course, they can then do with greater skill in the next.

This kind of purposeful planning can significantly enhance the development of a variety of important skills if the planning isn’t just focused on what content should be covered in what course. That’s important yes, but the question is much more complicated than who gets to teach what. It’s also the question of what content, coupled with what assignments and activities, best develops the necessary skills and knowledge base for students in a specific program.

Finally, thinking developmentally considers the maturation process, especially when the students are young adults. In the early 1990s Stommer and Erickson authored an excellent book called Teaching College Freshmen which was republished in 2006 as Teaching First-Year College Students. It’s a book I regularly recommend to those who teach these students. It provides an excellent overview of developmental issues relevant to beginning students. For years I’ve been saying that it ought to be the first book in a series. We need a book on teaching sophomores, one on juniors and finally one on seniors. Knowing something about where students are developmentally enables us to make better decisions about how we intervene and advance that process.

Developing assignments and activities that promote deep learning and significant skill development is a challenging intellectual task. But we don’t have to do everything all at once. We can start small; thinking developmentally about a set of related activities in the course, or purposefully planning how we will use two different assignments or activities to develop a particular skill. I’m guessing the results will motivate greater involvement with this important task.

Reference: Erickson, B. L., Peters, C. B. and Stommer, D. W. Teaching First-Year College Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.