Theory in use; how to be a better learning designer

You have beliefs about what creates good learning, and what doesn’t. This is called your ‘theory in use’. It is your personal construct, and is almost certainly not exactly the same as that of the very best expert teachers – yet! Your ‘theory in use’ decides pretty much everything you do in the classroom, so it is worth improving!

Geoff Petty

During my teacher training, my tutors used Geoff Petting’s ‘Teaching Today‘ as a core text. It is a great book full of practical advice on how to be a great teacher. His other popular book, ‘Evidence-based teaching‘, based mainly on John Hattie’s meta-analysis on the effect sizes of different teaching methods, is even better. 

The book suggests that the way you teach or design learning is based on two things:

  1. Theory in use – your principles of learning and teaching
  2. Teaching strategies – processes and practices for delivering teaching

Petty argues that the closer your theory in use reflects reality, the better you are as a teacher. He says that both your theory in use and your teaching strategies can be improved by constant research, experimentation, and reflection. 

How well do you understand your theory in use and teaching strategies? Are they written down? How often do you add and adapt them based on student outcomes and feedback?

What is your theory in use?

Have a go at writing your theory in use down on a blank piece of paper with the Feynman technique to test yourself. Set a timer for around 20 minutes and start to write your underlying principles of learning and teaching as if you were explaining them to someone. Once you have everything out of your head, use books and the internet to fill in any gaps. 

Try to evaluate how well you have tested your principles and how closely you feel they reflect reality. Spend the next few days reading up on the principles of expert teachers you respect, is there anything you can add to your list?

If you are serious about being the best learning designer you can be and provide students with a great learning experience, you need to improve your theory of use and teaching strategies. First, make sure you know what both of these are, then spend some time adding to it from great teachers who share their knowledge and finally use a learning cycle to add to and adjust them as you gain experience. The world needs better teachers, and reflective practice is the first step to creating more of them.

The SAMR Learning Model

The first digital iteration of technology in any field tends to replicate its analogue predecessor, the next iteration then starts to exploit the possibilities

Kevin Kelly

SAMR is a model of learning and teaching created by Dr R. Puentedura frames the use of technology into four categories based on its impact on the student experience. 

SAMR model

  • Enhancement
    • Substitution – Technology acts as a direct substitute, with no functional change
    • Augmentation – Technology acts as a direct substitute, with functional improvement
  • Transformation
    • Modification – Technology allows for significant task redesign
    • Redefinition – Technology allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable

The first two categories are where the teaching has been enhanced by technology, and the second two is where it has been transformed by technology. The use of technology in the enhancement categories may bring some benefits, but the real improvements come when technology is used to do something that was not possible or practical previously.

Substitution could be represented by synchronous video calls with all the students and academics present at the same time to replace an in-person seminar or pre-recorded video used to replace lectures. The technology has enabled remote access to learning, but the method of delivery has not really changed. Augmentation then brings some functional improvements such as the students using the chat function to create rich conversations around the seminar topic and answer each other’s questions with higher engagement than in a physical classroom with one person talking at a time and the most confident students taking up much of the dialogue. Lectures might be reproduced in smaller 6-10 minute videos interleaved with automated knowledge checks (self-marking quizzes) that allow all students to test their learning and the academic know which ideas might need revisiting. 

The benefits of digital technologies will come with the modification of teaching and the move from a focus on ‘contact time’ to ‘learning hours’. Academics can be freed from the traditional constraints of the timetable and campus and design teaching around ideas and exploration rather than hour slots and room capacities. Modification might include the mixing of what used to be taught as in-class, such as the presentation of content in a lecture, and independent study, such as reading journal articles or problem sets to create a more natural route through the subject. Modification might be experiencing too by exploiting the interconnected nature of the internet to create new social learning experiences. Redefinition could suggest using technologies to allow students to take greater control of their learning and might include teaching through questions like platforms include Brilliant.org and Smart.ly or practical competency-based methods like Khan Academy that adapt to the strengths, weaknesses, and pace of each student. These digital approaches can free up time for academics to work with small groups of students on problem-based projects and other classroom-based active learning methods. 

Redefinition should be the goal in the redesigning of learning and teaching, using the internet to remove the traditional constraints of in-person instruction and create a richer student experience around the subject narrative.

How to use SAMR

Universities could use the SAMR learning model as a benchmarking exercise to help people understand how technology can transform teaching to help planning or as an audit approach at module, course, and department level to understand the maturity of blended and online learning practice. It could just be used as a framework to help academics think about the use of technology in teaching and remove the pressure of moving too quickly. 

It is at this point in the year that university leaders and academics are starting to think about next year. Do we move back to predominantly in-person teaching, continue with our enhanced approaches or learn from emerging transformational practice that will deliver a step-change in the student experience? The more important question might be, how fast do we change? Do we push ahead with improvements and push academics too far or risk losing some momentum to protect teaching staff? 

If possible, we need to maintain the progress we have made this year and allow the majority of academics to evolve their practice with some incremental enhancements while supporting those that want to go faster to create transformational approach. Redefine learning and teaching and can then be seen as a direction of travel with speed controlled by individuals as they become comfortable with the benefits different technologies can bring. 

Watch a six-minute video with Dr Ruben Puentedura describe his model. Get in touch on Twitter if you are thinking about using the SAMR model or are starting to plan what the 2021/22 academic year and beyond might look like.