Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

What Makes a Strong Program Design?

Program-level learning outcomes encompass knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that are not the domain of a single course. Work towards these outcomes can be integrated into programs at many levels, and in a variety of contexts so that students have the opportunity to address these goals throughout their pre-professional training. This kind of integration supports scaffolding of learning, sequencing of instructional activities, and will lead to a more coherent and comprehensive program. As a part of Envisioning Your Department, you and your colleagues have likely developed a list of the things you, collectively, do well. This is the time to capitalize on those strengths.

Scaffolding and Sequencing Across the Program

Scaffolding: "...a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process...teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance." - Glossary of Education Reform
Program-level learning outcomes are concepts, skills, strategies, ways of thinking that must be practiced early, often and with increased levels of difficulty in a baccalaureate degree program, and reflect the long apprenticeship that is needed to inaugurate students into the ranks of professional geoscientists. PLLO's can be scaffolded to provide an integrated, coherent, and comprehensive degree program. This approach derives from the learning research conducted by Vygotsky and his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). In their learning trajectories students initially need substantial support (often from many sources), learning progresses under the guidance of mentors (in the ZPD), and ultimately learning transpires without guidance.

Learning sequences in a program are closely related to scaffolding, as introductory courses must prepare students for more rigorous treatment of subject matter (or advanced skill development) in higher level classes. (This also follows Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills in development of increasingly higher levels of cognitive skills). In planning learning sequences it is important to be cognizant of the foundational concepts/skills that must be mastered at an early stage, and the logical development of those concepts/skills as they are applied to more complex situations at subsequent higher levels of instruction. Consider applying the "Rule of Threes" (or fours or fives): if something is worth learning, students need to have at least three solid exposures to that topic. A sequence of learning would provide early exposure to a topic in an introductory course, followed by familiarization, competence and hopefully mastery of key concepts and skills over the four-year curriculum.

In order for PLLO's to be integrated in a degree program, it is important that introductory courses provide the foundations for continued learning and prepare students to further develop important concepts/skills that will be expected at higher levels of instruction and upper division courses should build upon lessons learned in lower division courses. This validates and confirms the importance of the central ideas that are emphasized at different levels and from different perspectives, and can help to earn buy-in from students when they realize that their class activities are part of a larger fabric and not just "make work" assignments; students can anticipate expectations of future learning, and reflect on the importance of lessons past. It is also necessary that faculty in a program have a full understanding of how the PLLO's fit into the overall program, and assume responsibility of achieving the PLLO's as part of an integrated whole (with focus beyond "my own class").

PLLO's are not confined to formal classroom instruction. Thinking about scaffolding and sequencing at the level of the degree program allows planning to encompass all of the programmatic elements such as journal clubs, field trips, and departmental speaker series. These and other elements beyond the curriculum present additional opportunities to develop knowledge and skills in our students.

Specific Program-Level Competencies

Development of program-level learning outcomes can benefit from guidelines developed across many sectors of higher education, including the learning sciences. Consider applying the tenets of:

  • The Role of Metacognition - "Thinking about thinking" can have profound effects on helping students learn. Metacognitive strategies can be explicitly built into courses and curricula to enhance student learning.
    • Preparing Students to be Life-Long Learners: take a look at Karl Wirth's presentation on A Metacurriculum on Metacognition that outlines a co-curriculum that prepares students for life-long learning.
  • The Affective Domain - Program-level learning outcomes might include strategies for recruitment of new students, developing strategies to motivate learning, inspire curiosity, address values and attitudes about Science.
  • Teach Geoscientific Thinking - The methods and ways of thinking that are intrinsic to Earth science differ in important ways from the experimental procedures that are commonly taught in schools as the scientific method. Students in all disciplines can benefit from a better understanding of the way that geoscientists think and reason through a question.
  • Applying science to solve critical societal issues - Why Should Undergraduate Education include a Focus on Sustainability and Earth-centered Societal Issues?
  • Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation - These cognitive skills can be developed purposefully in programs by developing appropriate class activities at different instructional levels across the curriculum.

Frameworks for Strong Program Design

There have been a number of efforts to provide guidance and resources for building strong programs in STEM disciplines. Some of these include: