Individually Paced Instruction

Wallace Venable, Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, West Virginia University

Proceedings of the North Central Section of ASEE - 1971

Teachers who are trying to apply psychological theory to education are emphasizing several principles. One of these is that learning is something which takes place on an individual basis. No matter how a teacher schedules classroom activities or study assignments for a group, each student within the group must individually make a proper reaction to the activity or assignment in order for learning to take place.

The job of evoking an appropriate response from each individual in an advanced educational setting and as an engineering school is a particularly difficult one because of the complexity of the responses which are required. These responses are possible only if the individual involved has mastered a large number of prerequisite skills.

Many teachers accept these facts on the conceptual level, but few teachers structure their work in ways which show that they consider these concepts to have direct applications to everyday education.

The course structures and class schedules which most colleges use encourages teachers to use a batch process approach to class organization. A few teachers attempt to insure that all or almost all students within a class learn the material listed in the course syllabus by adjusting the pace of the group to that of the slower students. Many teachers try to structure their courses so that the pace is suited to a hypothetical average student. Both of these systems work reasonably for most students when the course covers material of low to moderate difficulty. When the difficulty of the subject matter in creases both of these systems have a problem. That is that any student who falls behind on an early lesson is probably condemned to poor achievement on the remaining lessons of the course. In any case, the student who masters a lesson quickly is required to wait for the remainder of the class to complete it before he can go on to the next lesson.

Individualized instruction has been used at various times in the past, but generally it has been used only with low student-teacher ratios or in independent study situations. It has often been considered impractical in situations which require that a teacher supervise many students, particularly when the course of study includes a large volume of detail or supervised skill development.

Today a small but rapidly growing group of teachers is running class room experiments with educational systems in which each student is permitted to work his way through a structured course at his own speed. While the details of the programs vary, they all are based on the promise that such an approach can be used within the existing institutional administrative structure in almost any college and in almost any subject area or level.

Individually paced or self-paced instruction is being used in high school, undergraduate and graduate instruction. It has been used in physics, biology, and psychology in addition to mechanical and chemical engineering and engineering mechanics.

A Structure for Self-Paced Instruction

A course taught with self-paced instruction is generally organized in the following manner:

  1. The course is divided into a sequence of small learning units.
  2. For each separate learning unit the instructor prepares a study program which organizes the readings, problems, and experiments which the student should complete.
  3. A student must demonstrate his mastery of each unit in turn before attempting succeeding units.
  4. Each student works through the series of study units at his own pace.
  5. The instructor makes himself readily available to the students for personal interaction.

The goal is that all students will develop a high degree of proficiency in the subject matter. Differences between individuals may then snow up primarily as differences in their rate of completion of the units rather than in their level of achievement on unit tests.

Such a system is not tied to any one medium. It is a method of instructional administration rather than a method of preparation. The actual information presentation may be made with any materials suitable for individual use. Printed and recorded formats are most commonly used.

The Learning Unit

Carefully prepared learning units are the key to self-paced instruction.

Each learning unit should be short enough so that it contains no more than five related concepts which are new to the student. Some units may include no more conceptual material than that which a lecturer might cover in five or ten minutes. Other units might be similar in coverage to a three hour laboratory or field trip. The coverage is selected and edited or expanded until it forms a conceptual or methodological unit.

The learning unit is not easily converted into a unit of study time. With a self-paced system there is little need to construct a course so that the number of learning units is equal to the number of contact hours. The number of study units is determined primarily by the number of concepts included in the course. Then the length of each unit is individually adjusted until it gives satisfactory results.

The study materials used with self-paced instruction sometimes may be elaborate. West Virginia University uses over a thousand pages of programmed instruction for each of two engineering mechanics courses. Some plans use video tapes, or specially prepared audio tapes with synchronized color slides.

However, effective systems are operating which use a conventional text book with brief notes, and problem assignments. Sometimes suggestions for supplementary study are included in case the student needs or wants more study to clarify or amplify the basic text.

The critical points are that the materials chosen provide clear presentation of the topic, that adequate practice work is included, that the student is informed of what he is to learn from each lesson, and that the materials are ready when the fastest student is ready for them.

Testing for Mastery

Each student is required to demonstrate his mastery of the material at the completion of each study unit. Generally, the most appropriate way to give him an opportunity to do so is by a written quiz over the topic. These quizzes are generally graded on a pass-fail basis with honor level achievement required for the passing grade. The instructor, or an assistant, grades the quiz in the student's presence in order to insure that the student knows where his weaknesses lie This gives both the instructor and the student a chance to give any verbal explanation which may clear up any ambiguity in the lesson, the quiz, or an answer. If the student has not passed the quiz he may restudy the lesson and re-take the quiz without penalty. Generally,

The purpose of the quiz is to assure that the student has completed the learning unit. Since each student is required to show high proficiency on each test before he can proceed with a new topic, the mastery test should be constructed to reflect only those skills which will be required of all students enrolling in the course. The difficulty and coverage of the test should be similar to the coverage and difficulty of the learning unit..

It is, of course, necessary to build up a file containing several versions of each quiz since students will take quizzes at different times and some will take several quizzes on the same unit.

Assigning Grades

Several systems of assigning grades are used with self-paced instruction. Some proponents feel that any student who passes all the units at the mastery level should receive an A, and give only A and "incompletes" as grades. Others issue grades on the basis of number of units completed. Some assign grades on the basis of design work or special projects, and others base grades on a comprehensive final examination which tests for retention in addition to level of achievement.

Generally a large percentage of the students in a self-paced course will successfully complete all of the study units. This will force the instructor into a decision about his basic policy on grading. That is, he must decide whether he is to give grades based only on the student's achievement on the course material or whether his grade should be a composite measure which includes an appraisal of ability, personality, and achievement.

What Should an Instructor Expect?

First of all, if a teacher tries self-paced instruction, he should not expect all of his students to follow the schedule which he recommends. No matter- how much good advice is given to the students, some of theft will insist on Their right to do the entire course in the last two weeks. Some students will complete the course at an even rate, and some will do it in a series of short spurts.

Second, the teacher should expect to spend at least as much time talking with his students as he would have spent talking at them if he had con ducted a lecture course. Students will use the relaxed structure as a help in establishing more personal relationships with the instructor.

Third, the teacher should expect his students to do well. If they do not he should ask them to help him by identifying the difficult sections and by suggesting improvements. He will probably be surprised at the amount of help :hex will give him in preparing for following classes.


Preliminary trials have shown that self-paced instruction is a workable concept. The number and size or the classes conducted this way is growing rapidly.

If students are given carefully prepared study guides, they can achieve a high level of mastery of college material without classroom presentation of information, and if they are required to demonstrate their achievement unit by unit before proceeding, they will consistently meet high standards.

Each student will, in fact, proceed independently at a rate suited to his ability and there will be markedly reduced variation in the individual levels of proficiency.

Finally, no matter how many times an instructor has taught the course, if he switches to individually paced instruction, he can expect to learn more about the details of the course content, his students' abilities and short comings and himself than he could learn in a similar length of time with. any other existing educational scheme. This will happen because the students will react to the emphasis on universally high achievement by becoming more open their contacts with the teacher. Their questions and suggestions will resist their needs and difficulties more accurately as both student and instructor acknowledge their interdependence in instruction.

Self-paced instruction does not provide a smooth high speed highway to educational improvement but it does appear to provide a direct route to individual success.