Programmed Instruction Closes Two Generation Gaps

Charles E. Wales, Associate Professor of Engineering, Wright State University

Engineering Education: March 1969

Two generation gaps exist in today's engineering college, and programmed instruction can help produce a solution to both. The first gap is between the members of the faculty who believe engineering is primarily related to design and the rest of the faculty who believe engineering is primarily related to science. The gap between them grows as they struggle to squeeze both design and science into an already bulging curriculum, ending with an uneasy compromise of separate science and design course work. Each group continues to fight for a larger share of the available hours, but neither group appears interested in any other solution to their problem. That is unfortunate, because there is a solution: a new course design, built around programmed instruction, which combines both science and design work in each course.

The second generation gap separates the faculty and administration from the students. According to educational leaders like Robert Hutchens, E. H. Levi and Jacques Barzun, the underlying cause of the trouble is the fact that the faculty at big universities are too busy doing everything except teaching. Students feel they have lost their identity, that instruction is at best descriptive, that content is encyclopedic, and that what they are getting is not an education. The following quotation from a student newspaper editorial sums up the student attitude quite well:

"At the beginning of each semester I sit in class and watch the professor talk to his students. We learn his name, office number, phone number, attendance policy, homework requirements, testing schedule.... We never talk again. - - "

"The instructor reads his notes, the students copy his notes. We don't think, we copy. We don't learn, we memorize."

The course design which closes the first generation gap can simultaneously close the second gap. In this design, programmed instruction is used to transmit basic information to the students outside of class, leaving class time free for meaningful student-faculty interaction.

Design of Programmed Material

To illustrate this new design, let me describe my own experience in teaching thermodynamics to junior engineering students using programmed instruction. 4 The inherent design of programmed material is superior to that of a textbook. As a result, the students learn and understand more of the material they study. 5 An important factor here is the immediate feedback provided by the program. In a typical textbook-based course, the student waits one or two days for this feedback. Because the student who studies a program has fewer unanswered questions, only 5-20 minutes of class time are required to answer questions about new concepts and to discuss the usual single answer homework problems. The rest of the class period is available for the class discussions which can close the student-faculty generation gap. These discussions are used to probe concepts to greater depth, to extend concepts to new closed problems, and to apply concepts to open-ended, industrial design problems.

The effectiveness of programmed instruction as a method of transmitting basic information to the student makes it possible to combine both science concepts and the design application of these concepts in the same class, thus closing the science-design generation gap. The psychologist McKeachie 3 points out that this combination has an important additional benefit:

"Teaching which helps students find a framework within which to fit new facts is likely to be much more effective than teaching which simply communicates masses of material in which the student can see no organization. The successful teacher is one whose students see meaningful problems. The ideal class would begin with a problem which is so meaningful that the students are always just a step ahead of the teacher in approaching a solution."

Text Vs Program

Is programmed instruction really more effective than a text in transmitting information to the student? The psychologist Ausubel 1 says it is. He describes the usual text as logically sound but psychologically incongruous. In a text concepts are segregated by topic, the relationship between concepts is often not clarified or lost in a maze of detail, and material is developed at a uniformly high level of abstraction that better suits the ability of someone who is familiar with the concepts - not a new learner. By contrast, Ausubel describes programmed instruction as a device which develops concepts in a logical sequence from the simple to the complex. In this way the program builds the hierarchical structure that matches the way in which psychologists believe knowledge is organized and stored by human beings.

Any teacher who has written and tested a program can testify to these text-program differences. In fact, one of the first things discovered is the number and size of the gaps in logic which exist in both the textbook and the classroom presentation of a subject. Some faculty members reject programmed materials outright because these gaps are eliminated. They believe gaps are desirable because they force the student to provide the necessary clarification for himself. Unfortunately, it frequently turns out that the student is not capable of performing this easy (to someone who has previously studied the subject) task. Ausubel rejects this point of view with the thought that "Excessively difficult material makes for an undesirably large number of initial errors and misconceptions that have to be unlearned."

This interferes with further learning, it lowers the student's self-confidence and motivation, and promotes task avoidance. It is not that the student does not want to learn on his own, but rather that he lacks the necessary self-critical ability. The student usually "finds it easy enough to manipulate words so as to create an appearance of knowledge and thereby to delude and others others that he really understands." In the course design suggested above, the faculty members who believe in challenging the student to think for himself will find ample opportunity to do so in the application of newly learned concepts to design problems.

Programmed materials are designed to lead the student step by step from what he knows to the stated performance objectives of the program. Because the flow of concepts follows this pattern, the interesting but extraneous material found in the typical text is usually eliminated. Research data 3 indicate that this is a desirable omission because ". . . beyond a certain point adding to the elements in an intellectual task causes confusion and inefficiency."

Thus, the focus usually found in a program is an important characteristic that aids the new learner. As he studies a program, the student actually participates in a guided discovery experience in which new concepts are developed and applied. This is an important aspect of a program. The student is not a passive reader; he is a participant. However, because of this style, a single concept may be developed over several pages of the program and this spread reduces the value of the program as a reference source. By contrast, a textbook is organized so that material can be easily located. Thus, while the program is an outstanding learning device, the textbook is correspondingly valuable to the student after he has learned a concept.

Program Writing

It has been my experience that quite a few students but very few engineering faculty have been exposed to the concept of programmed instruction. Like any other teaching device, the program must be written to suit the level and ability of a certain group of students. For this reason, it is important to note that the program is

subject to the same design mistakes or misuse as other teaching materials.

For example, the original design of programmed material involved short questions, properly cued or prompted to insure that each student would give the correct answer. My experience has shown that this style does not suit the ability of the engineering student who not only can handle relatively large steps and unprompted questions, but will be bored by anything less. An example of a misuse is the teacher who has his students read the program in class. Such a teacher does not understand that the purpose of a program is not to replace the effort of the teacher but rather to free class time for more valuable activities.

The two basic program styles are called linear and branched. A linear program consists of a series of questions and answers. To use this program properly, the student should cover each page with a separate sheet of paper, uncover and read a question, think or write his answer, then uncover the program answer and check his result. The immediate feedback provided by this answer informs the student if he does not understand and reinforces him if he does. A branched program consists of a series of multiple-choice questions. In this case the student reads the first question, selects one of the given answers, and then checks his choice against the given answer. When he selects the correct answer, he is given the next multiple-choice question. If he selects the wrong answer, he is supplied with additional information or help and told what to do next.

By its Socratic form, the program provides the student with many of the best features of fine tutorial instruction. The program shapes the student's understanding by establishing simple behaviors which are gradually combined and modified until they lead to the performance objectives established for that program. The linear style of programming provides the most direct control of this shaping process. In addition, it makes the student a more active learner because, to answer each question, he must reformulate the given information in terms of his own vocabulary, background, and structure of ideas. Psychologists believe these to be extremely important acts in the learning process. However, the branched program has an important place. When it is possible to ask questions which have two or three logical alternates or distractors, the branched program can be used to teach the student to discriminate between similar ideas.

Visibility of Programmed Instruction

Programmed instruction is quite different from other teaching techniques such as the text and the lecture, because it makes instruction highly "visible." Both the content and the thinking pattern of the author are exposed frame by frame. While this visibility lays the program open to instant criticism, it also provides a concrete document which can be tested and improved. This testing, on individual students and groups of students, is an important strength of the program. For example, feedback from the students and faculty at the nine schools where my programs have been tested has resulted in three extensive revisions. Although each school offered some constructive criticism, both student and faculty reaction to the programs was most favorable, In each case where the students were asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire, the majority indicated that they preferred the programs to the text they had been using.

One faculty comment was:

"In general; we feel that for the same material the students learned as much if not more with programmed instruction as previous years' students had learned using a text. At the same time the programmed instruction material did free some of the class time for devotion to other topics never discussed in the course before."

At another university the comment was:

"My students were enthusiastic about the programmed learning. I believe that they learned the material easier by this method than by any textbook I have used."

Cautions to the Professor

When a faculty member reviews a program, he must remember that the program is written for students who do not yet understand the given subject matter. What may appear to the professor as a too simple step-by-step development has been tested and proved effective with students like his own. He must not let years of experience with a subject stand between his students and an effective learning device. If the teacher's objective is to help students learn, he should judge the program by what it does for his students.

What the program is supposed to do should be described by a set of tests or student-performance objectives 2 which accompany the program.

Although most teachers feel that they know the specific objectives of their course, the students usually do not. Many educators believe the lack of a set of written objectives which specify expected student performance is one of the greatest weaknesses of the present educational system. Hopefully, programmed instruction which includes these objectives will set the pattern for the future.

Programmed instruction material is an important new educational development that is psychologically better designed than the usual text; a visible, tested device designed to achieve specific, stated measurable educational objectives; and a teaching tool that can be used in a new course design to close both the science-design and the student-faculty generation gaps. Programmed instruction compares to engineering advances such as the jet engine, computers, interstate highways, and the transistor. It remains to be seen whether engineering educators will move as fast as their industrial colleagues to adopt this new, more efficient educational advance.


  1. Ausubel, D. P., The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning, Grune and Stratton, New York, 1963.
  2. Mager R. F. Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearon, San Francisco, Calif., 1962.
  3. McKeachie, W. J., Teaching Tips, G. Wahr, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1968
  4. Wales, C. E., Programmed Thermodynamics, McGrawHill, New York, available fall 1969.
  5. Wales, C. E., "The Student, The Teacher, The Psychologist View Prograrmned Instruction," Chemical Engineering Education, Vol. 2, No. 3, summer 1968, pp. 129-135.