January 21 2012
eCoaching Tip 95: Learning Guides – Expanding Your Teaching Presence
In the last tip just before Christmas we focused on reinventing the syllabus — infusing the normally long, contractual document with stimulating questions, a graphic overview of the course content and learning outcomes. An often-asked question is what is the difference between a syllabus and a learning guide. That is easy. The syllabus is an introduction to and learning guide for your full course; a learning guide guides the learner through the expectations and requirements for a module.
What is a Learning Guide?
The simplest definition of a learning guide is that it is a “checklist that contains everything students need to do for a module.” (Smith, 2008, p. 48). Learning guides are also often described as learning paths (Henne, 2009), aids for navigating and completing a unit (Luck, 2009) and module summaries with instructions for the module’s learning experiences (Boettcher, 2010). These definitions all illuminate some of the uses and purposes of learning guides.
What are the Elements of a Learning Guide?
Just as there are various definitions of a learning guide, recommendations for the essential components of a learning guide can vary. Here is a recommended set of elements, modified slightly from Smith (2008). Obviously you can adapt this to meet your own particular content, teaching style and preferred teaching strategies.
The module introduction is a brief paragraph or a sentence or two that places the module within the context of the whole course. This introduction both inspires and yet serves to focus on how and why the module activities within the module can support the building of knowledge, a skill or perspective.
Many learning outcomes sound as if they were generated by a pedagogical outcome generator, best suited for curriculum review committees. Here is where you want to rephrase your learning outcomes as if you were talking to your learners over coffee, or in a classroom. Of course you want to leave room for your learners to customize learning outcomes to their particular contexts of family and career. A good example of a more “accessible” learning outcome is: You will be able to talk through with your friends and colleagues how your personal leadership practices help your personal problem-solving and decision-making. Keeping learning outcomes front and center is one of the key attributes of quality courses (Sloan C, 2011; Quality Matters, 2012)
All learning modules should build on a core set of learning resources, such as a chapter in a textbook, a journal article, an audio or video podcast, or a multimedia presentation from the web. The core learning resources are “shared” experiences that are foundational to building community. Core learning resources also are essential to the building of and acquiring required skills. Additionally, we always want to have optional and recommended resources for students to branch out to customize their learning and to have ideas and examples to contribute to the community.
This is the most important part of the learning guide. It is a list of learning and assessment activities, generally in the recommended order of completion, but not necessarily so. Notice that this list includes both “what the student is to do to learn” as well as the assessment or assignment activities that provide evidence of “what the learner has learned and is now able to do.”
This is the schedule for when these activities are to be completed. It might be cut and pasted from the schedule you include in your syllabus. Or you might integrate dates with the list of activities. Another useful option is to add the dates as to when you will provide feedback on the assessment activities, anticipating questions such as, “When will I get your feedback?”
When we transition from topics In a F2F context of any kind, we generally use “wrap-up” and “what’s next” statements. These are similarly very useful in online courses. What works very well is to provide summary wraps of discussion forums, as described in an earlier Tip 25. The announcement tool and audio formats also work very well for such wraps and transitions.
How Long is a Learning Guide?
This is a great question. The answer is that it is as long as you and your students would like it to be. I like to remind myself that the purpose of a learning guide is to give an overview of the module with a checklist of activities for the student. This suggests that a learning guide is best only a page. Yet another purpose is to guide the learner through the module, so a little more expanded guide of one to two pages can also work well. Particularly with online courses, a learning guide is great for anticipating questions about, “What am I to do now, next?” and “Why is this important?” and “Where can I find the directions for the assignments again?”
Thinking through Your Module
One advantage of creating learning guides is that it helps to step back and “talk” through your module as if it were a project. This often helps to see how the various pieces of your module fit together and what a step-by-step sequence for the learners might be. Ideally you could provide an estimate of the amount of time and effort that each step might require. This step-by-step becomes a handy reference and planning tool for the students. With the time and effort estimates, students might be able to complete some items out of sequence — if it is flexible in that way — and do a piece or section when they can find that segment of time.
Here are a couple of links to some learning guides. Unfortunately these learning guides are very long and use a different organization than the template recommended in this tip. The good news is that they are very detailed and thus might be just the detail you personally will find useful. One reason they are so long is that they include activity descriptions and rubrics that you will probably link to from your learning guide.
You may be wondering now if it is too late for you to develop a learning guide for one of the course modules for this spring. It is not too late! Look ahead to a module that can sometimes be a bit confusing for your students and then envision the path that you want your learners to complete as your students proceed through the planned activities.
Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
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