If you are an educator or software trainer, chances are your livelihood is at least somewhat dependent on the outcomes of your students’ learning and their evaluations of you and your courses. In order to enhance student learning―and subsequently improve student evaluations―it’s important to consider the prior knowledge and expectations of learners, and how best to design the learning experience.
This article presents nine practical strategies on how to:
• Get to know your learners
• Design your courses/sessions to enhance student motivation and learning
Getting to Know Your Learners
Whether you’re teaching traditional college students who are part of the millennial generation, those having years of practical experience, or second career learners, it’s important to get to know your learners. For those working with students over an entire semester, this may occur naturally over time, but even those who are teaching a one-hour lab can take steps that will help set technology learners up for success.
What motivates your students to learn?
While their goals may not always be clearly expressed, technology learners have different motivations for their learning. These goals, in turn, affect how they approach courses and how involved they will be with learning tasks (i.e., task involvement).
Relative to the technology classroom, students motivated by a performance-approach often want to gain a basic knowledge of a software. This could be due to job responsibilities or securing a new position or project. While these goals are very valid, these types of learners strive to meet normative expectations (i.e., learning enough to get by).
Conversely, performance-avoidance goals motivate those who are afraid of falling behind the competition, and thus seek to avoid incompetence. Like those motivated by performance-approach goals, they may be seeking knowledge due to their job responsibilities or to secure a new opportunity, yet they may approach their courses believing that they are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.
Those who are motivated by work-avoidance goals often seek to learn software as quickly as possible. They are often the least involved with learning tasks, at times rushing through material without retaining or mastering it. Those motivated by affective goals gain pleasure from the act of learning, and their fulfillment stems from the process of learning rather than its outcomes. The social environment can also influence learner goals, as learners may be motivated by others’ perceptions. These learners often seek information to share it with others, thus advancing their social standing.
Finally, those motivated by learning goals are striving to not only gain competence, but also to achieve a deeper understanding. They are somewhat equally motivated by the learning process and its outcomes. Scholars have suggested that these learners have a willingness to explore, and are persistent when faced with challenges.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #1
While the learners may not share their true intentions for learning (even when asked), it is helpful for instructors to acknowledge that learners have a variety of goals at the beginning of a session. This can help them validate their intentions for attending.
Example: “I realize you may be here for different reasons, but I want to help each of you maximize our time together.”
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #2
If time is available, having students share their goals with each other can cause them to reframe their learning goals from those leading to low task involvement to those with relatively higher task involvement.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #3
If learners state goals that may lead them to low task involvement, provide them with reasons why you may not approach the content in ways they might expect and how this will benefit them.
What do your students already know?
A good instructor meets learners where they are and helps them arrive at their goals. To start this process, it is important to acknowledge what students already know. This comes in two forms, their current knowledge of computers and software, and their perceptions of how they learn best.
Avoiding the Curse of Knowledge
If you have been working with a software for years, chances are you have a deep pool of knowledge. However, the more expertise you may have, the easier it is to forget that others may not share this level of knowledge. When instructors lose sight of what their learners do not yet know, this can lead to frustrations for both the instructor and learners. Instructors can grow impatient, while learners perceive that instructor as aloof or uncaring. As such, it’s important to take steps to meet students where they are.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #4
OBTAINING CURRENT KNOWLEDGE
To understand the current knowledge and skills of your learners, you can opt to send out an advance survey. Questions would include previous software exposure and how they feel they learn best. Example question:
I would consider myself:
a). an early adopter of technology, and willing to try new ways to do things
b). willing to adopt new technology alongside my peers
c.) hesitant to adopt new technology
I feel I learn best by:
a). working alongside the instructor
b). listening, then doing
c). trying first, then asking questions
If contact information is not available for advance surveys, the instructor can take a few minutes at the start of the class to ask these questions. Doing so can accomplish several things:
1. It sets the tone of a supportive environment.
2. It engages students by giving them a chance to share and speak aloud. This can also empower learners to ask questions when they need clarification during learning activities.
3. It can help you shape the session in a manner that will enhance student learning.
Value & Expectancy: The Seeds of Learning
Motivation to learn is a product of how significant students feel the material is to their lives (value), and if they sense they can actually master it (expectancy).
Value Do your students care about the course/session content?
Evidence suggests that learners are more motivated to attain their learning goals when they feel the given material is important (Ambrose et al., 2010). Scholars have suggested there are three broad determinants of how one comes to value learning material.
1. Attainment value — satisfaction one gains from mastery and accomplishment. These individuals are driven by the outcomes of their learning.
2. Intrinsic value — satisfaction one gains from simply doing the task rather than its outcome. These individuals are internally driven.
3. Instrumental value — the degree to which the goal at-hand helps them achieve another goal, such as an award or promotion. These individuals see the course as a means to an end.
It’s important to note that these sources of value don’t necessary conflict; in fact, in most cases, these sources of value operate in conjunction and serve to support each other.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #5
HIGHLIGHTING THE VALUE OF THE MATERIAL
Since the more value learners place on a topic, the more likely they are to care to learn about it. Instructors should consider how to help learners see the value of the material from different perspectives. For example:
1. Attainment value — Ensure that learners are presented with content that is appropriately challenging so they feel satisfied after having learned it. Too easy is a bore, but don’t be hardcore.
Example: Ensure that the course begins as expected (i.e., not too difficult), but offers challenges to advanced learners to keep them engaged.
2. Intrinsic value — Chances are these individuals already see the value in the material, but instructors can harness their energy by having them help others who may be struggling with a concept.
3. Instrumental — Help learners to connect content to extrinsic rewards.
Example: Tell a story of how a former student used the skills covered in the course to advance their career trajectory (such as landing a promotion or winning a key client).
Expectancy Do your students feel that they will be able to master the content?
Value alone is not enough to motivate behavior. For students to be motivated to pursue goals, they also need to feel confident that they can learn and master the skills. If a student cares deeply about learning material, they may still feel overwhelmed with the content ― which can be the case with advanced technology/software courses. A learner may be very proficient with technology in general, but they may have had a negative classroom experience and thus lack confidence that they will achieve a positive outcome, while another learner may be overly confident in their learning abilities but lack background knowledge.
These outcome expectancies can be influenced by:
1. Prior experience in similar scenarios a. Have they had previous technology classes or sessions, and how did those go?
If they have been successful in the past, chances are they will assume success in similar endeavors. However, those who may have struggled in similar scenarios may attribute their failures to their own lack of ability, and may be bound to a self-fulfilling prophecy that these failures will happen again.
2. Prior exposure to software/technology a. If learners already feel they are far behind their peers in terms of technology, they may become entrenched in their previous ways of doing things or hit an impasse when facing unfamiliar content. These learners may place blame for their struggles on various factors such as: their age, their competence in other software programs (thus, they compare the programs), or even their firm for letting them fall so far behind.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #6
HELP STUDENTS IDENTIFY APPROPRIATE EXPECTANCIES
To help students increase their expectation that they can learn software, instructors can employ any of the following strategies:
1. Help students move beyond negative experiences. Prompt a discussion about previous technology failures by dissecting what went wrong and what can be learned from these experiences.
2. Build confidence from the start of the session. Share stories that highlight previous successes of those who may have faced similar challenges.
3. Acknowledge that learners may have had a different way of doing things in the past. Let them know your job is not to critique these processes but to expose them to additional ways of doing things.
4. Maintain confidence and propel it toward other tasks. Begin courses/sessions with low-stakes, low-risk activities; if students can gain confidence, they can then project those mini-successes toward more difficult tasks.
When learners enter a learning environment, a complex set of interactions lead them to judge that environment along a spectrum from no support to supportive. These judgements are largely the result of class dynamics, instructor tone, and communication patterns.
There is a relationship between the degree of support perceived by students, the value they place on the material, and if they expect to master it. For example, if students feel they are receiving little support, don’t see value in learning the material, and expect they cannot do so, they may reject the class ― and you as the instructor altogether. Those that feel little support, and see the value in the material, yet don’t think they can learn it, may lose hope. In either case, chances that they will master the material are low. Conversely, those that see value and feel they can learn the material in a supportive environment are motivated to learn and stand the best chances of mastering the material
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #7
AIM FOR HIGH VALUE, HIGH EXPECTANCY, AND HIGH SUPPORT
As a technology instructor, your goal should be to provide a supportive environment, help students see the value of the content, and assist them in realizing success. To do so, aim to be welcoming, design the course with the learner in mind, and provide frequent feedback, along with time and opportunity to ask questions.
Designing Your Courses/Sessions to Enhance Student Motivation and Learning
There are volumes of texts written about instructional design (i.e., designing courses and learning activities). A common theme among these is ensuring that there is an alignment between the learners, their goals, and the activities that will get help them realize their goals. In other words, once learners have been identified, instructors can work backwards from the learning objectives to determine how they should deliver the content (Fink, 2003).
What do you want students to learn?
Learning objectives can be used to communicate your intentions for the course, and provide a framework to organize learning activities. Benjamin Bloom (1956) outlined a taxonomy of learning objectives that often still referenced by educators today. The taxonomy represents six levels of learning behaviors, wherein the higher levels suggest an integration of the knowledge and skills.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #8
SEEK OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDENTS TO INTEGRATE KNOWLEDGE
Often, technology classes/sessions task a learner to apply their knowledge (apply) (i.e., they are actually using the software and not just reading about it). Yet, learning activities can prompt them to integrate their learning more fully by asking them to assess their processes, build a new project, or create a design using their new skills.
For example, proficiency in Revit parametric families may be demonstrated by having the students create their own families (create).
Or mastery of material mapping might be demonstrated by having students assess the quality of material maps (evaluate).
While there might not always be time for in-depth learning activities, instructors can prompt learners to think more deeply about what they are learning by asking them to evaluate or analyze the content.
After current knowledge and desired outcomes (i.e., learning objectives) have been outlined, (see the following page), it is then time to determine what learning activities should occur to achieve the desired results.
There are many approaches to designing learning activities. Once again, verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy can help identify appropriate activities. For instance, you could employ step-by-step learning, where students all work on the same project following a predetermined set of procedures (apply), or project-based learning wherein students are tasked with a problem and asked to use technology to resolve that problem (create). Or you could employ a combination of the two, where the students are first provided basic knowledge, then apply those skills to a problem at hand.
Learning activities should be designed to bridge students from where they are to their desired learning outcomes.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #9
INTEGRATE COMPONENTS OF MOTIVATION INTO LEARNING ACTIVITIES
Ryan and Deci (2000) offered a useful framework to help educators, corporate leaders, and healthcare professionals enhance levels of motivation amongst those they are hoping to influence. Their research led them to conclude that sustained (or long-term) motivation is the result of three constructs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Competence: Students feel as though they can master the material (similar to student expectancy)
Relatedness: Helping students connect to each other and to the content.
Autonomy: Providing students opportunities to choose their learning paths.
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #9A
HELP STUDENTS FEEL CONFIDENT DURING LEARNING ACTIVITIES
1. Build in frequent check points. It’s important to employ different strategies that gauge students’ mastery of content. Some students may be more willing to express their questions, while others, lacking one-on-one consultation, may fall further behind.
2. Acknowledge successes with small acts. Frame statements in a rewarding manner.
For example, “Now that we have mastered _______________, we all deserve a lunch break.”
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #9B
HELP STUDENTS RELATE TO EACH OTHER AND THE CONTENT
This can include encouraging students to talk with each other about what they are learning, and providing them examples of how what they are learning applies to practice.
For example, “Take a few minutes and share what you have learned with the person sitting next to you.”
PRACTICAL STRATEGY #9C
HELP STUDENTS FEEL AS THOUGH THEY CAN CHOOSE THEIR PATH TOWARD MASTERY
This can be as simple as asking learners what they want to do next, or allowing them some say in what content will be covered.
For example, “Would you rather go over ______________ or ________________?”
These nine practical strategies can help you to consider the prior knowledge of your learners, their goals, and thus design appropriate activities to help them achieve those goals.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bloom, B. (E.d.)., Engelhardt, M.D., Furst, E.J. Hill, W.H. Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives Handbooks 1. The Cognitive Domain. New York, NY: David McKay Co Inc.
Fink, D. L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ryan, D. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55(1) 68–78. doi: 10.1037/0003–066X.55.1.68
Amy Huber, IDEC, LEED AP, CDT, NCIDQ is an assistant professor at Florida State University. As technology lead for the Dept. of Interior Architecture and Design, Huber draws on a decade of Revit experience in teaching: Advanced Computer Aided Design, Advanced Visual Communications, and design studios.