What Makes a Strong Program Design?
Scaffolding and Sequencing Across the Program
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:
- The Association of American Colleges and Universities Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) project - Their list of Essential Learning Outcomes is quite helpful, as are their contributions to High Impact Educational Practices, Authentic Assessments, and Inclusive Excellence.
- Supporting the Whole Student - Programs with holistic approaches have shown the most success in supporting students of all kinds, with particular effectiveness in supporting populations that have lacked access and opportunities including women and students from underrepresented minorities, from entry to graduation and/or transfer.
- PULSE Framework for Cyclic Departmental Transformation - The Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE) seeks to accelerate transformation of life science departments based on the 2011 report Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action as part of a national effort to retain and advance students of the life sciences, prepare them for professional programs and careers, and help develop a scientifically literate citizenry. To aid this transformation, they have developed this flexible plan for departmental and institutional change, supported by a set of tools and mechanisms (including a rubric) that assist departments as they move along the change continuum.
- Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering - DBER integrates the deep disciplinary priorities, worldview, knowledge, and practices employed by scientists and engineers with complementary to research on human learning and cognition. The results of DBER will support excellence in STEM education, by providing the evidence that demonstrates effectiveness of instructional strategies, methods, pedagogies and assessments.
- Engage to Excel: Producing One million additional college graduates with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (PCAST, 2012) - Engage to Excel is a report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that addresses the challenges of recruiting and training 1 million more college graduates in STEM disciplines to meet future economic needs of the United States.