May 12, 2022

Why Instructional Design Should Focus on Learning Outcomes, Not Learning Activities

It’s no secret that kids learn best when teachers provide learning activities that keep them engaged. Teachers work tirelessly to plan engaging lessons that capture and maintain their students’ interests, making content more accessible. However, teachers continue to feel the daunting pressure to compete for their students’ attention amid the ever-changing and rapidly changing mass media, social media, and entertainment industry, as these elements make a amazing job keeping students highly engaged outside of the classroom.

While it is vitally important for us to know and understand our students’ interests and the best conditions in which they learn, there is good news: we need not focus our efforts on competition with the devices and activities our students participate in during their downtime outside of the classroom! Recreation, entertainment, and downtime for students outside of the classroom are just that: recreation, entertainment, and downtime. Students expect to come to school to learn and be challenged (although they may never tell us).

However, students also want to enjoy learning. They want to be intrigued and generate their own ideas and solutions, like when they predict how the plot will unfold in the next episode of their favorite TV series. They want to explore and discover new concepts in uncharted territory, like when they spend countless hours progressing to harder and harder levels in their favorite video game. They want communication channels that give voice to their opinions and ideas, such as when they regularly post and comment on other people’s posts on social media platforms. And yes, they want to be engaged.

Providing activities that engage students and capture their interests is a best practice. However, if we want these activities to produce real student growth, the instructional design must focus on the learning outcomes rather than the activity itself. Just take a look at the infographic below. What do you notice that’s different about these two text conversations, where a student shares what they did in school?

Click here to see a larger infographic. (Credit: Nira Dale)

Let’s look at the tools first. There are many tools that turn learning into play, simulating online games and game shows (e.g. Kahoot!, Quiz, Quizalize, etc.) in which students choose the correct answers, accumulate points and get a score. We often use these tools to review content and formative assessment. However, if the pinnacle of the activity is to repeatedly answer questions that are at low or similar levels of difficulty requiring basic memorization or minimal thinking, the activity will lose its novelty. Students may prefer this activity to completing a worksheet, but the impact on learning will leave much to be desired in the areas of productive student engagement and growth.

Additionally, most recreational games played outside of the classroom provide a progressive challenge as students progress through each level of the game. Remember Alex Trebek Peril? The questions start with easy and inexpensive questions; the more correct answers there are in each category, the more difficult and higher the amount of each question. Could we be more deliberate when using game simulation tools, making sure to solicit responses from our students that progressively challenge their thinking? Perhaps we could also offer students the ability to generate their own questions and use apps like Kahoot as a way to “think, share and share” their questions to challenge themselves! (Students don’t need to learn game design to create a Kahoot quiz and share the code with their classmates.)

After discovering how active my students were on Facebook, it was obvious to me to integrate social learning platforms like Edmodo to facilitate online classroom discussions. Students would post their thoughts from the assigned readings and respond to peer posts. They would have heated discussions online about the text. It was great, until I realized the need to evaluate how I was using this resource. Although the activity allowed students to have class discussions in a similar way to Facebook posting and commenting, the activity alone did little to support academic discourse or to develop inquiry and reflection skills.

Also, unless a topic is worthy of discussion or of great interest to students, they aren’t really interested in writing about it, even if it’s through an online platform. The commitment cap should not be based on the activity itself. I had to ask myself, “What are the expectations of this task and what impact will it have on learning outcomes?” I often found the expectations to be too general or too vague, and while I could use the language to justify the relationship between the task and the learning outcomes, when I was honest with myself I saw little or no substantial impact on student growth in the way I used the tool. I had to shift my focus from what I was using to how I was using it.

Therefore, I began to craft more meaningful questions that sparked critical reflection and academic discourse through online discussions (e.g. “What could this object of history symbolize, and what parallels could be drawn text with current events today?”). discovered the power of using these types of tools as a vehicle for peer editing and publishing via student blogs. Student motivation skyrocketed when they researched and published their findings on relevant topics when they did so online alongside other classes – from other countries! The possibilities were endless!

As edtech expert Tony Vincent would say, “Date the tool, but marry the ability.” There will always be multiple edtech tools, programs, and products that provide similar principle functions to support student engagement. However, to achieve engagement that goes beyond the element of surprise or novelty, which is often needed as an instructional “hooking” tool, it is imperative that we focus most of our instructional design efforts on the strengthening thinking skills and cognitive growth in students.

Student growth is the result of the practice, not the product.