Why Instructional Design Must Focus on Learning Outcomes, Not Learning Activities

Why Instructional Design Must Focus on Learning Outcomes, Not Learning Activities

It’s no secret that kids learn better when teachers provide learning activities that keep them engaged. Teachers work tirelessly to plan engaging lessons that capture and keep the interests of their students, thereby making content more accessible. However, teachers continue to feel the daunting pressure to compete for their students’ attention amidst the ever-evolving and rapidly-hanging mass media, social media, and entertainment industry, as these elements do a stellar job of keeping students highly engaged outside of the classroom.

Although it is vitally important for us to know and understand our students' interests and the best conditions under which they learn, there is good news: It’s not necessary that we focus our efforts on competing with the devices and activities our students engage in during their downtime outside of the classroom! Recreation, entertainment, and downtime for students outside of the classroom are just that: recreation, entertainment, and downtime. Students expect to come to school to learn and to be challenged (although they may never tell us that).

Nonetheless, students also want to enjoy learning. They want to be intrigued and to generate their own ideas and solutions—as when they predict how the plot will unfold in the next episode of their favorite television series. They want to explore and discover new concepts in uncharted territory—as when they spend countless hours advancing to more challenging and difficult levels in their favorite video game. They want channels of communication that give voice to their opinions and ideas—as when they regularly post and comment on others’ posts on social media platforms. And yes, they want to be engaged.

Providing activities that relate to students and capture their interests is a best practice. However, if we want such activities to produce genuine student growth, instructional design must focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the activity itself. Just take a look at the infographic below. What do you notice is different about these two text conversations, where a student shares what they’ve been doing at school?

Click here to see larger infographic. (Credit: Nira Dale)

Let’s look at tools first. There are many tools that turn learning into game-play, simulating online games and game shows (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizziz, Quizalize, etc.) in which students choose correct answers, accumulate points, and earn a score. We often use these tools for reviewing content and formative assessment. Nevertheless, if the pinnacle of the activity is to repeatedly respond to questions that are at low or similar levels of difficulty requiring basic memorization or minimal thought, the activity will lose its novelty. Students may prefer this activity over completing a worksheet, but the impact on learning will leave much to be desired in the areas of productive engagement and student growth.

Furthermore, most recreational games played outside the classroom provide a progressive challenge as students advance through each level of the game. Remember Alex Trebek’s Jeopardy? The questions begin with easy, low-dollar questions; the more questions answered correctly in each category, the more difficult and higher the dollar amount for each question. Could we be more deliberate when using game-simulating tools by ensuring we solicit responses from our students that progressively challenge their thinking? Perhaps we could also provide opportunities for students to generate their own questions and use apps like Kahoot as a means to “think-pair-share” their questions to challenge each other! (Students don’t have to learn game-design to create a Kahoot quiz and share the code with classmates.)

After discovering how active my students were on Facebook, it was a no-brainer for me to incorporate social learning platforms like Edmodo to facilitate class discussions online. Students would post their thoughts from assigned readings, and respond to posts made by their peers. They’d have lively online discussions about the text. It was great—until I realized the need to evaluate how I was using this resource. Although the activity allowed students to have class discussions in a similar fashion as posting and commenting on Facebook, the activity alone had done little to support academic discourse or to develop inquiry and thinking skills.

Also, unless a subject is discussion-worthy, or of high-interest to students, they're not genuinely interested in writing about it, even if it is through an online platform. The ceiling for engagement shouldn’t rest upon the activity itself. I had to ask myself, “What is the expectation of this task, and how will it impact learning outcomes?” I often found that expectations were either too general or too vague, and although I could use language to justify the relationship of the task to learning outcomes, when I was honest with myself, I saw little to no substantial impact on student growth in the way I was using the tool. I had to shift my focus from what I was using to how I was using it.

Hence, I began to craft more meaningful questions that prompted critical thinking and academic discourse through online discussion (e.g. “What might this object from the story symbolize, and what parallels might be drawn from the text to current events today?"). I also discovered the power of using these types of tools as a vehicle for peer-editing and peer-publishing through student blogging. Student motivation skyrocketed when they performed research and published their conclusions on relevant topics when doing so online alongside other classrooms—from other countries! The possibilities were endless!

As edtech expert, Tony Vincent, would say, “Date the tool, but marry the ability.” There will always be multiple edtech tools, programs, and products that provide similar principle functions to support student engagement. However, to achieve engagement that exceeds the element of surprise or novelty, which is often necessary as an instructional “hooking” tool, it is imperative that we place the brunt of our instructional design efforts towards building thinking skills and cognitive growth within students.

Student growth is a result of the practice, not the product.

Nira Dale (@MrsDale_Edu) is an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), English teacher, and K-12 instructional specialist in Alabama.

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