Are We Thinking as Developmentally as We Should?

Individual courses and degree programs give us the opportunity to move students along a developmental continuum. Content complexity grows across course sequences, as does student understanding of it. But are students growing as learners in the same way? Are we designing learning experiences so that they develop cognitive skills and learner autonomy?

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Individual courses and degree programs give us the opportunity to move students along a developmental continuum. Content complexity grows across course sequences, as does student understanding of it. But are students growing as learners in the same way? Are we designing learning experiences so that they develop cognitive skills and learner autonomy? For the majority of students, development as learners does happen in college, but often it seems to occur more by accident than by design. It happens in some courses and not in others, more directly in some program curricula than in others, and better in some institutional settings than in others. Furthermore, learning growth happens without much conscious awareness, much as how kids grow taller. They encounter the change next season when the pants they wore last year are too short or when the next line on the door frame is an inch higher. Kids know they are growing, but it's experienced pretty amorphously, much like learning about learning in college. The learning experiences provided by a course could be designed with cognitive growth goals in mind. Instead of three exams containing exactly the same kinds of questions, each exam could contain test items that require different levels or kinds of thinking. Most certainly, the exam itself should not be the first time students encounter the new question formats. They will need practice with new test items beforehand. A set of written assignments could also require different learning skills or more sophisticated versions of the same skill. To purposefully design sequences of assignments, the place to start is by identifying the learning skill or skills that should be developed in the course. Teachers tend to overreach here. Many of today's college students are missing or barely have the multiple skills teachers consider essential. Teachers motivated to work on learning skills want to develop all of them, and although that's noble, it's unrealistic. Rather, teachers should start with course content, identify the skills most needed to master it, and then work systematically, purposefully, and developmentally on those. The same sort of planning should occur when degree or program curricula are developed. Instead of an almost exclusive focus on what content needs to be included in each course, equal attention should be paid to what skills are best developed by the different kinds of content included in the program, the best or most sensible sequence of skill development, and how skill development begun in one course can be reinforced in subsequent ones. The more specific and concrete this planning, the more effectively it develops learning skills. It's fine to begin this conversation with the courses and content best suited to develop critical thinking, problem solving, evaluation of evidence, and synthesis of content, but that's not where it should end. It needs to move on to a discussion of the assignments and activities that most effectively develop those skills. And after that, there should be conversation about the kind of feedback that promotes learning from an assignment and the assignments that follow. Finally, there must be assessment. Is there tangible evidence that a program is developing these targeted skills? Are the methods for measuring them reliable and valid? And how is programmatic feedback being used to refine the skill development goals of the curriculum? All this depends on a different level of curriculum planning than most faculty are used to. It requires a shift from thinking about content not just as the end, but also as the means. Students do need to exit programs with content knowledge, but they also need to leave having had learning experiences devoted to the development of their cognitive abilities. This kind of curricula planning is a daunting and time-consuming task, but it's possible to start small, in the venue of an individual course where the instructor has control over what assignments a student completes. The design of those assignments, the features they contain, and the criteria that will be used to assess them directly influence how a student completes them, which drives how learning skills develop. It's also possible for two faculty members who teach sequential courses to begin collaborating on skill development across those courses. And it's possible to tackle parts of a curriculum rather than all of it. The development of students as learners is a task worthy of the effort it demands. It means we equip them not just with content knowledge but also with the tools they need for a lifetime of successful and satisfying learning.