Elastically Structured Teaching - Programmed Instruction, Contingency Management, and Group Pacing Combined

Wallace S. Venable, Russell K. Dean, and Helen L. Plants

Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, West Virginia University

1982 International Society for Individualized Instruction Conference, Purdue University

Engineering Mechanics courses at West Virginia University have been taught with a system combining programmed instruction, contingency management, and group-pacing since 1966. This system, which the authors call Elastically Structured Teaching (EST), is used in three courses which currently have a total enrollment of about 1200 students per year.

The system has evolved from a traditional teaching method in which students are expected to study the text and prepare homework problems before the instructor "lectures." Initially the units of programmed instruction were prepared to help students study the more difficult topics, and post tests were substituted for homework submission. Eventually all the topics in the first course were "programmed," and then a second and a third course were prepared in the new format.

As with any educational system, EST has undergone a process of evolution. As more and more material was prepared it became practical to give increased opportunities to students to adjust their individual pace when necessary. Both the system and the instructors have become more flexible. While the system is basically group-paced, with about 80% of all post tests being taken in class, students with non-academic troubles are given essentially unlimited freedom to make-up work. A learning center was established to provide a place for test taking outside class. Students were given the opportunity to retake some low marks, and an early completion program was established for those willing to self-pace on a greatly accelerated set of deadlines.

Both EST or "programmed" and "lecture" sections of the courses are offered by the department. A common departmental final examination is given. Students in the EST sections consistently have a higher average score.

About ten years ago the authors decided to try offering these courses on a self-paced, mastery basis. Students, instructors, and tutors alike found the self-paced format to be more demanding and there was no increase in performance. Some reasons for this are discussed below. The experiment was discontinued after one semester.

Engineering colleges, like all professional schools, are as much in the business of developing attitudes as in teaching knowledge. While there is no standard set of objectives available, the affective goals of engineering might be summarized as teaching a "work ethic." The majority of an engineering student's study assignments are in the form of problems or laboratories. Historically these assignments have forced students to expect a "working day" of at least eight hours from the first year of college. The cognitive level of much of their instruction forces students to work near the limits of their intellectual capacity, and most assignments have rather rigidly set deadlines. This system forces students to learn to optimize the return from their efforts, and to expect that opportunities to perfect any assignment will be rare.

Whether or not such a system is desirable is certainly open to question. As a matter of fact, the established objectives of most engineering courses are relatively invariant between institutions, and these are such that mastery teaching is nearly impossible without revising the length of the semester.

Since most engineering programs involve an extensive sequence of course prerequisites, extending a student's work beyond the semester end is often problematic.

Within EST we have established a grade of 70% as the minimum desired performance. On post tests, students are permitted to retake those on which they receive lower scores, but retaking is not permitted for work which is initially above this acceptance level.

Under EST, the grading of examinations is the responsibility of the faculty, but the grading of post tests is assigned to undergraduates employed under the title of "grader." They do act as proctors in the learning center, and do some tutorial instruction, but these are not primary duties. Feedback to students is primarily in written form through the posting of scores, and by giving students access to files of their completed quiz papers.

Most of our engineering students seem happy to receive feedback through in-class presentations of post test solutions by instructors at the chalk board, and through written comments on their work. During our experiment with self-paced instruction, our students seemed uncomfortable with "personalized" evaluation of their work.

With EST we have been able to increase both the mean examination performance and the percentage of students which successfully complete the course, in comparison with more traditional methods. In our experiment with self-paced instruction we were able to maintain high performance, but with decreased completion rate.

In naming EST, the idea of elasticity has followed the engineer's technical use of the word. It denotes the ability of a structure to flex in response to an imposed load, but not to yield. As a system of engineering instruction, EST has permitted us to maintain traditional academic pressures, but with flexibility to respond to individual needs.

EST also rates high on structure. Each course includes thirty or more study units of programmed instruction, and an equal number of post tests, to which are added four hour examinations and a final. Students are given clearly delineated schedules, written rules, and well defined objectives.

Finally, EST retains the teacher as an active part of the process. The teacher serves as role model in class, consultant on individual problems, and course manager.

The use of the programmed instruction reduces the need for the teacher to serve as a broadcaster of information, and the team operation of the course reduces students' perception of the teacher as judge and jury.

The engineering mechanics courses in which this system is used are required parts of the various curricula. It is extremely rare for a student to take one as a matter of free choice, but students are often heard to tell one another, "since you have to take it, take 'programmed.' It will make you keep up, and really learn it."