How To Begin In Individualized Instruction

Helen L. Plants

Chapter 5, Individualized Instruction in Engineering Education, Lawrence P. Grayson and Joseph M. Biedenbach, editors

American Society For Engineering Education 1974

The great thing in beginning in individualized instruction is to begin. Far too many people have spent so much energy thinking about individualizing instruction, reading about it, and planning for it, that in the end they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the undertaking and gave it up before they ever started. Success seems to come to those who, having decided to individualize, move quickly to implement their decision in the classroom.

The optimum system for getting started seems to be read and think just enough to get a rough idea of what you want to do, then do it. Try your scheme and note your successes and failures. Then go to the literature and find out what others have done. Look into the work of a few educational psychologists. Read and think as much as you have time for, and then revise your own plan. The work of others will have far more meaning if you have some experience of your own. Learning by doing has long been favored for engineers. It works for educators too.

There seem to be two principal reasons why the policy of beginning immediately pays off. In the first place, thinking about individualizing instruction can be a very frightening thing. One enumerates a seemingly endless number of things that must be done and problems that will surely crop up. If the projected instruction is actually put into action, however, only a small number of the possible calamities actually occur and are usually easily corrected. It is really a great deal easier to take action against the real problems that do arise than to try to devise a system that will account for all the problems that can be imagined.

A second reason for making an immediate start is that having started, it is very hard to stop. There is a point of pride. Certain announcements have been. made. Colleagues are watching. Students are waiting. It becomes easier to carry out the plans than to explain why you did not. Furthermore, as the individualized work begins, fans are sure to develop. Students begin to inquire about the progress of the work, about expanding its scope to other topics, other courses. Overtones of approval, even enthusiasm, are everywhere, and suddenly, the teacher is hooked. He cannot quit, nor does he want to.

The try, learn, and try again attack seems to have been the way that the majority of those active in individualized instruction began. It is, admittedly, a brash and optimistic approach, but it seems to result in satisfaction for both the teacher and his students. Consequently, this chapter will presume this strategy and deal with the details of implementing it and of optimizing its chances for success.

Marshaling Resources: People, Time And Money

Having decided to begin the individualization of instruction, the first step is to get together the necessary resources, human and otherwise.

The first and most important step is to form a team. With a few notable exceptions, educational innovators who work alone tend toward limited success. To succeed, you will need to enjoy what you are doing. To enjoy the work, you need someone to share your triumphs and disasters, as well as to put a shoulder to the wheel.

Ideally, the team should consist of two or more people whose technical interests are in the same area. At least one member should have been teaching long enough to have become completely comfortable with his material, and to have an accurate picture of what students are really like and how they are apt to react.

If it is not possible to put together an ideal team, do your best with what you have. Most of all you need someone to listen to your ideas and make intelligent comments. A good friend in another department, a school-teacher wife, or a graduate student can be a big help, and enthusiastic undergraduates will do in a pinch.

The faculty team should be augmented by student help -- graduate or undergraduate as is most appropriate in your situation. Here, enthusiasm is the key. The students, who must be convinced of the importance of the idea and infected with its excitement, are not hard to find. Many people have had really excellent results using undergraduates in key positions.

At the same time that you are identifying the people who will assist you, you should be seeking the support of your institution. Developing a program of individualized instruction is going to take a lot of your time, and occasionally will require an intensive effort.

Try to obtain a reduced teaching load. If that is not possible, try to get a schedule that will require as little outside preparation as possible, with large blocks of uninterrupted time to work on the project. Count on putting in three to five times as much preparation time for your individualized lessons as you would spend in preparing that lesson if it were taught in a lecture mode. Even that amount of time may not be sufficient, particularly in the beginning stages.

It obviously would be desirable if a large grant could be obtained to support your efforts and enable you to concentrate on developing materials. Unfortunately, it is not likely to happen. The few grants that have been made for educational developments have gone to people who have already demonstrated competence in a pilot program. Effort put into writing proposals for untried systems is most likely to be wasted.

There is, however, apt to be some financial assistance available for the asking. It is of the nickel-and-dime variety, but it can be a real help. Check first to see if your department may have a graduate student or so, who could be assigned to you. Such an assignment can provide assistance for you and valuable experience in a different kind of teaching for the graduate student. A second source of help at many schools is the Work-Study program, financed by the federal government. Students on this program are assigned to various projects at little or no cost to the project. They can provide typing and clerical services, or with a bit of luck, you may get a student from your own department who can serve as proctor, grader, and even student subjects who can react to drafts of materials. Such sources may enable you to put together a better team than you could otherwise afford.

All in all, make plans and arrange enough personnel and supplies for a somewhat larger operation than you anticipate in the beginning. The effort required will increase.

The Scope Of The Work

Most teachers who start in individualized instruction work toward the individualization of an entire course or sequence of courses. As an ultimate aim, such a plan cannot be faulted; as an immediate goal, it is most likely impractical. A fair estimate would be that it will probably take two people all of their academic spare time for two years to completely individualize a one semester course, if they must generate all the material themselves.

Most people are not sufficiently patient to be willing to wait two years to see if their efforts are successful. Consequently, a piece-meal attack seems more workable. The course should be developed in segments, which are put into immediate use. This approach allows the teacher to correct and learn from his mistakes in the first segments of the course that are developed, rather than discovering that two years' work is badly flawed. It is relatively easy to work a mistake out of a unit or two, and to resolve to avoid future recurrence. It is horrible to contemplate having to do the same thing to all the units in the course.

For these reasons, it seems advisable to break the course down into units that will be used immediately, units for the next term, and units for the term after next. The problem arises in determining which is which.

Generally speaking, hard topics should be individualized before easy ones, and topics appearing late in the course should be done before those appearing early in the course. This seems a bit unexpected, but it does seem to work for several reasons.

It is better to do the hard ones first because there is more return for your effort. It is a great deal more satisfactory to all concerned to see a difficult concept learned better, than to see a rather easy one made easier. Developing material for individualization is hard work, particularly at first. It is a shame to waste it on topics that already are easily taught. (It is quite practical to use an alternating system wherein segments of conventional instruction are alternated with segments of individualized work throughout the course. This enables the teacher to handle the easier topics in the conventional manner, while individualizing the more difficult parts.)

It is better to individualize the latter part of the course first, because the logistics are less likely to get out of hand. It is disruptive to a class which has experienced the freedom of individualized work during the first half of a term to accept the rigidity of conventional instruction during the latter portion. On the other hand, it is simple and pleasant for a class to go on an individualized basis in the latter part of a semester.

Identifying Objectives

Let us presume that you have delineated the scope of your first project, have enlisted an ally, and have identified the topic for your first effort. What do you do now?

You define your objectives.

This is a necessary step, but not a difficult one. The best way to begin is to obtain a copy of Preparing Instructional Objectives by Robert Mager, and working your way through it. It probably will take less than two hours, and when you are finished you will have a fair working knowledge of behavioral objectives. That knowledge is absolutely essential to
further success.

Now sit down, and write the objectives for the material you are going to individualize. There should be a very clear statement of what is and what is not included in the objective, and of the criteria of measurement. This will clarify your ideas on the subject, and will remove a great deal of potential ambiguity. Do not make the mistake, however, of considering your first list of objectives to be final. You will probably modify, refine, and add to your list many times before the project is completed.

When you have written all of the objectives on paper, arrange them in hierarchies. Which objectives subsume others? Which must be accomplished as a necessary condition for the accomplishment of others? Are there some that seem to be unrelated to the main development? Classify your objectives as principal and subsidiary. Make sure that you have identified all of the necessary skills that are prerequisite to your principal objectives. Such skills are either assumed as prerequisites which you think your students should know, or are part of your instructional package and must be included in the objectives. Check your hierarchy of objectives carefully, since they form the basis for your design.

Now you are ready to break your topic into lessons, that is into the material to be covered in a single session. You may consider a lesson to cover a single principal objective, or a group of closely related principal objectives. If a principal objective subsumes many subsidiary objectives, two or more lessons may be required. The important point is to avoid introducing too many new concepts in a single lesson. The practical limit on the number of new concepts that can be handled at one time seems to be about seven, if they are quite simple, or three to five if they are complex.

When you have finished dividing the topics in this fashion you probably will be surprised to find that you have more lessons than the usual number of lectures for the same amount of material. This is not surprising, since the 50 minute time slot usually forces a teacher to present more material than this student can absorb in that time. You have divided the lectures into smaller, more learnable chunks.

Assembling Materials For Instruction

By now you should have developed a very clear understanding of what you hope to accomplish. The next step is to decide how to accomplish it.

Look at the instructional materials you have at hand. Books are undoubtedly available. How about programmed instruction? Audio tapes? Video tapes? Slide shows? Movies? Now look at your objectives. How can each be best accomplished? Often an objective will suggest the teaching method. Decide which is the best way you can help the student achieve each objective. Does the available material match your objectives? If not, how can you modify or augment it to make it do so?

There will be trade-offs at this stage between what you would like and what you will settle for, when the available time and money are considered. When you have finished, you should be able to list the material you must generate to individualize the first topic. It could be as simple as auxiliary notes or a study guide, or it could be exceedingly complex.

The next step is to design a post-test, which will include all items that you expect your students to know when they have completed the topic. Make sure that the test reflects the objectives accurately and adequately. Design sub-routines which will allow you to test subsidiary objectives, if the student cannot meet the over-riding principal objective. Put the test aside. Then, write, program, photograph or tape the material you must develop. In this stage of generating material, you will need all of the help you can obtain. Have your teammate edit your work, while you edit his. If at all possible, obtain a third opinion from a student who is representative of your intended audience.

Remember at all times that you are working for the student. You are not aiming for brilliant work to impress your colleagues, but for clear presentations to increase your students' understanding. If the students cannot understand the material, the material is at fault.

The difficulty in seeing your material through the students' eyes can be overcome by using individual students as testers. If possible, you should locate several students who have the prerequisite backgrounds for learning your topic, and hire a few as paid testers. The fact that they are being paid, will assist them in overcoming natural diffidence about criticizing a faculty member's work. Try to pick students whom you know to be reasonably good at expressing themselves, as a tongue-tied tester will do you little good.

Have the student whom you consider brightest go through your material and take the post-test. Note what he can and cannot do and ask his advice on improving the rough spots. Listen to him. Don't argue. It is almost impossible to avoid becoming defensive, but strive not to do so. The student knows what didn't come across, and if it didn't, it didn't,

Fix it. Rewrite as necessary to bring your work to the point where your brightest tester feels it is clear. Then, try the materials on your second brightest tester. Rewrite it again to his specifications, and then give it to your third tester, who should be about what you consider average for your class. Rewrite it with the third student's suggestions, and by :3'' then it should be ready for use in class.

It is sometimes impossible to recruit an appropriate test panel, so that the individual testing stage must be omitted. Such an omission will almost surely result in a major rewrite after the first class test.

Class-Testing the Topic

The systems for implementing individualized instruction are numerous and diverse. You will undoubtedly have your own ideas for getting it into the class and certainly should try them. The system should be designed, however, to assure two things: pay off for the student; and feedback to you.

Student pay off is not too hard to arrange. The freedom of individualized instruction seems to be a pay off in itself for many students. Making good grades is a universal pay off. Just remember that individualized instruction will not work unless the students are convinced that what they are doing is worth their while.

Feedback for the instructor is more difficult to arrange but is exceedingly important, particularly if the individual testing phase had to be omitted. Instructor feedback comes from two primary sources -- test items and student interviews.

Students should be encouraged to discuss their difficulties with the teacher on a basis of mutual benefit. The teacher will help the student over the rough spots, but in return will learn the students' difficulties. Usually this works well for both sides and results in excellent rapport.

Testing is more difficult. To give each student a detailed test covering all the objectives that you prepared would be exhausting for everyone. Therefore, consider it a pool and draw an appropriate number of items for each student. In that manner, you should receive some information on how well each objective is met without burdening any individual.

Be sure that you include items on subsidiary objectives. If one tests on primary objectives alone and the student meets them, you can assume the subsidiaries have been achieved. But if the student fails to meet the objective, you cannot tell why the failure occurred. Testing subsidiary objectives will provide this information.

Examination of test data and student interviews will quickly point to those areas in which your instruction is falling short. Do not overlook the assumed prerequisite as a possible source of trouble. It is amazing how little correlation there often is between what a student knows and what you think he should know.

Last, as in all engineering work, keep good records of all that happened and gather as much numerical data as you can. It will help you in revising and improving your work.

What Comes Next?

You have finished your first unit. You have class-tested it and found that it works, perhaps not perfectly, but in a satisfactory way for a first trial. At least you know what went wrong. What's the next step? Rest on your laurels for a little while. Enjoy the nice things that are said about your work. Then, make it better. Now is the time to read exhaustively to see what others think and do. Look at your problems and their solutions, and come up with a solution of your own. Rewrite Topic One, and begin Topic Two. Each time it will become easier.