Preparing the Learner…Revisited

Self-Directed LearningIn an earlier post I discussed how Knowles added a sixth process step in Andragogy called Preparing the Learner. I referred to my Fall 2010 graduate leadership course where each week students applied different leadership theories to case assignments.

Other than providing a grading rubric, I did nothing to prepare these adult learners in completing the assignments. I found large variances between students early on. Many students were not thinking critically about the theories they were asked to apply. Mostly they just gave unsupported opinions. I saw some improvement over time with feedback and encouragement to think more critically about how the strengths and weaknesses of the theories affected their analysis of the case scenario. The question I posed was what could I have done in the course design to help prepare and develop students for this mode of learning? In this blog entry I will revisit the concept of preparing the learner by describing some things I tried in my Spring 2011 undergraduate leadership course.

The difference between the two leadership courses is that one was a graduate course while the other was an undergraduate course. There were differences in the curriculum but both used case studies (two entirely different sets) in a similar way to apply leadership theories and principles. Both graduate and undergraduate students were working adult learners. I thought the two courses and the students were similar enough that trying some new approaches would give me initial comparative data even though this was clearly not a scientific study. My hope was to see if I was on the right track and hopefully I might find direction for more rigorous studies.

Boyer (2004) conducted a study that suggests adult learners can be successful in self-directed learning without the structure we typically see in online learning today, but recognized that new learning environments may need scaffolding strategies to help them develop as such. Because adult learners have been conditioned by a traditional education system, many struggle as self-inquirers which is the reason Knowles (2005) added preparing the learner as an initiating phase in the Andragogy process. So I created a voice-over presentation on how to be successful in the course. It included recommendations on how to approach the case studies. Normally students only have the course syllabus. It sets expectations but does not provide strategies for meeting expectations which was the situation for the graduate course.

I also used a scaffolding strategy on the selection and grading of cases. As emerging self-inquirers or self-directed learners, I wanted students to select their own case studies from a list so that they could choose situations closer to their own personal experiences. This was an attempt at using the first three phases of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model where students move from Concrete Experience to Abstract Conceptualization. (Kolb, 1984). The strategy involved a framework that included focused presentations, exemplars, rubrics, and specific feedback on critical thinking.

The presentations were voice-over slides using Adobe Presenter. I attempted to move from overview lectures to things to think about in applying theories. Two exemplars or models were provided to visually demonstrate what an accomplished analysis of a case study looks like. These included how the grading rubric was used to assess the examples. Support for this strategy comes from the concept that a grading rubric affirms a learner-centered approach because it is a transparent grading process that establishes trust between instructor and students and it helps set expectations (Muirhead, 2002).

The student evaluations for the second undergraduate course were very positive. Students appreciated the scaffolding and detailed feedback. Comments indicated they felt they had learned more about leadership than they had anticipated going into the course. But a quick t-Test for two independent samples did not show any significant difference in the population means. Students in the graduate course had greater improvement scores over the duration of the course but this could have happened by chance. I don’t know whether the steeper learning curve for the graduates who did not have the benefit of the framework actually accounted for the difference in improvement scores.

So what are my next steps? Student feedback on the course design was very encouraging so I will continue to refine these techniques, but I would also like to know if these can really make a difference. Boyer (2004) suggests that we should move beyond traditional structures and take advantage of the unique features in online learning while recognizing that a scaffolding framework is still needed for adult learners. This resonates with my experience but we need to know if this actually works since there is a measure of investment that is required.

Boyer, N. R. (2004). Who’s in charge? A system of scaffolds that encourages online learners to take control. Chicago, IL: 27th Meeting of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED485092)

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F. & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner, sixth edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Burlington MA: Elsevier.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall.

Muirhead, B. (2002, February 1). Relevant assessment strategies for online colleges & universities. USDLA – United States Distance Learning Association: Home. Retrieved March 7, 2011, from