So, What is the Real Problem?

examining textbooks

In “Let’s Solve the Right Damn Problem: Intentional Teaching with Technology” we talked about using backward course design to align technology with the course materials and learning activities.

How does this design approach play out in today’s college classroom? Let’s look at “Mary.”

Mary is an advertising instructor who is frustrated with the way her large-enrollment introductory class is going. She has several problems that she doesn’t know how to solve—problems that we all face in our teaching.

Mary’s students frequently ditch her lecture classes. When they do show up, they’re neither prepared nor engaged. Another consistent problem is their cheating on multiple-choice exams; the lecture hall seating makes it easy to look at a neighbor’s answers.

One day, after weeks of feeling helpless, Mary receives a cold call from a clicker company representative. This classroom response system will solve all her problems! She can take attendance using the device and ask intermittent questions to ensure students are still awake. Also, by interacting more with the material, students should know it better and be less inclined to cheat on the final.

Mary clutches at this solution as if it were a lifesaver thrown to her in the rough seas of teaching today’s students. She immediately comes to our teaching and learning center to get trained and set up with clickers for the following semester.

To be fair, classroom response systems can be very effective, but when Mary attends training, we call a time-out. “Sure, clickers are a solution,” we say, “but are they the right solution?”

Mary agrees to pause and explore the root cause of the problem. Why are students so bored and disengaged? Why don’t they want to come to class? Why aren’t they doing their reading? Why are they so easily distracted during the lectures? Why are they so apathetic about the material?

Soon it’s clear that Mary herself is bored and disengaged with the class. She admits her lectures are probably dull. They cover the same material as what’s in the assigned readings. Mary has inadvertently trained her students to come to class unprepared, knowing they would get the same information without bothering to read.

Mary eventually realizes that the textbook is the source of the problem. It’s outdated and boring, and it does nothing to pique the interest of introductory advertising students. Large sections of the book cover dinosaur-age topics like creating effective ads for the yellow pages. There’s nothing about marketing products on Spotify or YouTube. There’s nothing on creating targeted banner ads or leveraging social media. The content is completely irrelevant to students who are considering a career in advertising.

At last we’ve identified the real problem. The source of the pain is the outdated textbook. Now, we can work through backward design to develop a more aligned, structurally sound class.

This begins with careful thought about the final destination. Upon reflection, Mary identifies her big goal: students should explore whether advertising is the career path (and therefore the major) for them. She redevelops her course learning objectives with this goal in view.

Next, instead of a multiple-choice exam, Mary designs a final project in which students create an ad with a team. This replicates what happens in the industry. Incidentally, this resolves her concern about students’ cheating on the final—no final exam, no cheating on it. In this way, Mary develops a solution to an academic integrity issue through an authentic assessment.

The third step in backward design is to plan instructional materials and learning activities to support student success on the assessments in the class. Would reading an irrelevant textbook prepare students to complete a team advertising project successfully? No. Mary cuts several chapters of the textbook, retaining only those that lay out foundational principles of advertising.

Mary replaces the discarded chapters with relevant and timely online articles and blogs. She invites industry leaders to guest lecture in her class through videoconferencing or video recording software. Now, her students are hearing from experts who are working in the field and can share their insights and perspectives. Because the speakers and the new content are immediately relevant and much more interesting, many of the initial problems naturally resolve themselves. Students want to be in class, they are motivated to do their homework, and they are actively engaged when they get there.

The result of this process is a well-aligned class, with the wheels all pointing in the same direction: the final destination. In the end, Mary decides against clickers. Clickers would have been a Band-Aid solution that did not address the core issue of the outdated textbook.

Instead, the most effective technology solution for Mary turns out to be online resources, conferencing and recording applications to bring in guest speakers, and students’ own devices and media tools to help them create their advertising projects.

The lesson here is clear. Take the time to accurately define the problem. Step through backward design to develop a structurally sound class in which all the components line up and support each other. Identify technology that supports learning activities, assessments, and course objectives, but make sure it also solves the real problem, the root cause of surface pain. This approach ensures the wheels of your class are aligned so that all students can enjoy their learning journey to the final destination. Safe travels!

Flower Darby is an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University. Wally Nolan is a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University.

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