Big picture or detail? Where to start course planning?

Blooms taxonomy

Sometimes we organise our courses according to a hierarchy of learning outcomes, such as Blooms Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. We use the hierarchy to identify the level of outcome we want from our students: Do we want them to merely comprehend what we teach, or do we want them to apply this knowledge to solve problems, or even to create new ideas and solutions?

These hierarchies imply that the higher outcomes are dependent on the lower outcomes. For example, students can only apply their knowledge, critically analyse, evaluate and create once they have they know, remember and comprehend the basic knowledge of the field. This is often thought to also imply that you should first teach students the knowledge they need, and then later you can ask them to analyse this knowledge or create with it. The assumption is that students need the basic knowledge before they evaluate it or apply it. While this second implication is true, it is also fundamentally mistaken and leads to poor course design. In fact, we should start our courses at the higher level before going back down to the bottom.

Start at the top so that learning is meaningful for students

If students first learn isolated bits of knowledge, what they have learned is inert. It is stored as meaningless fragments that are effectively useless. For the knowledge to be useable it has to be stored in meaningful chunks. Once students have learned isolated bits of knowledge, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to arrange these into meaningful categories. Learning is more effective if students first understand the meaningful categories and then, as they learn new bits of information, they organise what they learn according to these categories. For example, you don’t learn a lot of facts about what people do in different countries and then create a concept of culture. You learn what culture is, and then each isolated fact you subsequently learn makes sense as an illustration of differences in culture. In a second example, you don’t ask students to memorise all the parts of a cell and then expect students to put them together to understand cell function. You start by enabling students to understand the function of a cell within a body, and then they learn how all the parts fit together. In both of these examples, it is best to start with a broad synthesis or analysis of fundamental concepts and principles, and then go to the detailed knowledge that will fit within this meaningful big picture.

Start at the top to engage your students and motivate their learning

Starting at the bottom of the hierarchy also gives no motivation for students to learn. Why would they care to remember a whole lot of meaningless facts? Instead, you motivate learning by starting at the top, where you can engage students and inspire them to inquire. For example, if you start by showing students a big, interesting problem, case or question that needs some complex analysis and evaluation to solve, and you show them why this problem is important so they want to solve it, then they will then be motivated to learn all the little bits of knowledge they will need for a solution. Even though the students cannot solve this problem at the start of the course, the problem provides a meaningful context for their learning, so when you teach them the detail it is no longer unrelated info to try to remember, but meaningful data because of its usefulness in solving the problem. They understand the facts because they see it within the big picture of solving the problem they are engaged with.

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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