Self-Evaluated, Self-Directed and Heutagogical Learning – NIMC (Not In My Classroom!)

The prompt asks us to describe our initial thoughts on designing an entire course or a single assignment, and my very first reaction is included in the subject line. Having said that, I think I need to clarify – I’m thinking mostly about the undergraduate prerequisite science courses that I’ll be responsible for in the upcoming academic year. These courses (Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II) are foundational for almost everything that comes afterward in a nursing or allied health professions curriculum. These courses are often listed as 100 / 1000 – level courses (introductory) with no prerequisites of their own, however, they are taught at a 300 / 3000 – level (sophomore or junior). Content and learning objectives in these courses are broad AND deep. My Oxford College and Emory College students are projected to be freshmen or sophomores. Given the cognitive development of these students, coupled with the breadth and depth of content, I don’t believe a completely learner-centered course would not be the best approach. Alison Head and John Wihby stated in their recent Chronicle article, “…It turns out that students are poorly trained in college to effectively navigate the Internet’s indiscriminate glut of information.” ( Data/147477/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en). I’m wondering if students who require more structure in assignments would find a completely learner-centered environment to be, “an indiscrimate glut of information,” and have difficulty in making progress in any of the objectives. Further, the time, effort and creativity that are required to develop novel, authentic and alternative assessments that are part of a completely learner-centered approach make this seem completely daunting. Silverthorn, Thorn and Svinicki (2006) found that even when instructors were highly motivated to include alternative assessments and approaches in life science classes, only 22% of those instructors were able to overcome the significant barriers they encountered to actually introduce and utilize active learning modules in their courses.

Reviewing the Blaschke article from the M4 readings, there is an image that really resonated with me (below) where I see these particular students taking the Human Anatomy and Physiology course sequence falling somewhere between Level 1 and Level 2.

Certainly, as students progress through the undergraduate BSN program we can describe them as gaining maturity and autonomy, and requiring different structure from the instructor. As an analogy here – in some ways anatomy and physiology is like learning multiplication tables: there are some things that just need to be learned as facts because they are foundational to other concepts. Students need to be able to see that there is stratified squamous epithelium in the esophagus but simple columnar epithelium in the stomach; that epithelium is different from other tissue types and that each type of epithelium has characteristics that contribute to the overall structure and function of the organ / organ system. Students in Mary Jane’s classes may need to understand how acid reflux from the stomach can damage the epithelium in the esophagus, symptoms that are manifested in patients and appropriate treatments for patients with GERD (particularly pregnant patients), while Phyllis’ students may need to understand how to implement a unit-wide or hospital-wide treatment algorithm for GERD based on the insurance available, evidence-based outcomes and cost analysis between proton-pump inhibitors and H2 blockers; both need to have an understanding that the lining tissue in the esophagus is differently protected than that in the stomach because the function of each organ is different.
Understanding the characteristics of the learner is a part of the instructional design, as we

discussed earlier. (See Kemp’s model below.) Matching the structure of your course or assignment to the learner optimizes the learning experience (and promoting students’ continued learning and development of self-efficacy). Student characteristics are not superior or inferior, but they should help drive the development of everything else in the course.
However, having my students come into these particular courses requiring more structure and input seems to imply that assignments could be included that develop the skills and attitudes needed for self-directed learning. Interestingly, I’m finding there is a real wealth of already-developed, online support material for Anatomy and Physiology courses in particular, typically packaged with the textbook (animations, e-books with linked content, clinical images, self-testing programs, etc.) Two strategies that I would like to include are formative testing and building a bibliography.
Including formative tests, or self tests, that students must complete throughout the course, allow students to assess their mastery of the content at various points in-between more formal, summative tests. These will be online, timed, automatically graded short tests that students can take multiple times until they reach a minimum level of mastery (for example, selecting the correct answer 80% of the time). I used this particular strategy during the spring 2014 in Human Anatomy and Physiology II, replacing paper-and-pencil lab quizzes. Each quiz was low-stakes (worth only 10 points out of a total of 300 points allocated to the lab component) and the 5 best quizzes (out of 9 or 10) were included in the overall course grade. Building the online quizzes in a variety of formats took significant time and required several iterations before it worked smoothly. My intent was to have students prepare more completely for the in-class practical lab exam. To my surprise, students commented favorably on the inclusion of this strategy.
The second assessment strategy I’d like to include is having students build a course bibliography. In this approach, I would post a prompt related to a particular clinical issue, and have students post their research related to this topic, with a short summary of the piece they’ve posted. For example, in the module where we are studying tissues, I might have students post some research on cystic fibrosis, a disease where the clinical symptoms result from dysfunction at the tissue level. This strategy appeals to me as a way to include student research into my course, and to have students work collaboratively in building the works they can all read. I would include this as a low-stakes assessment, like the quizzes described above.
So, while my initial response to developing my Human Anatomy and Physiology courses as completely learning-centered was, “No way can I do this,” I can see how I can develop components of the courses that are learning-centered alternatives to the largely multiple-choice and short-answer tests that right now are the mainstays of students assessment. Using the technology with which I’m already familiar (Blackboard) and products that have been developed for instructor use by the publisher give me some places to start.


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  1. Hi Ann – thank you for your perspective on the prompt and its application to your specific situation. I am glad to see that as you thought more about these models, you found ways in which you could attempt to incorporate components in your courses. As we’ve been discussing in this course, not every model is right for every situation—we should choose what works best. Perhaps what works best is a combination of models, or just parts of a model. In this case, you are skeptical and unsure whether heutagogical learning is the best choice for your learners (and for you). For a model you are unsure of, I think you are on the right track as you state in your closing. Take a piece, develop it, try it out, and see how it goes. If it works, great; continue to develop that component. If not, why didn’t it work? You could trash it completely or modify it based on analysis. Though it is difficult to go through the trial and error, it is essential to development.

    You mention that you would like to explore learner-centered alternatives to the standard objective-style assessments. What do you think might be a good fit to try out based on this approach?

    • Kristy Martyn on July 17, 2014 at 8:34 pm
    • Reply

    Ann, your perspective on heutagogical learning is very interesting and understandable. I appreciate your progression to seeing ways you might incorporate this approach with your students. And I agree with Stephanie about approaching this one step at a time in a trial and error fashion. It does seem that a developmental approach for both students and faculty would be necessary to use this type of model for learner-centered learning to truly occur.

  2. Ann, your reaction is completely justified and makes a lot of sense in my opinion. As someone who primarily instructs freshmen, I know they are not heutagogic-ready! But you can absolutely incorporate learner-centered touches into your class and your two strategies for doing so (self-tests and building a group bibliography for the course) are great ideas. And of course as a librarian I love that you would have them build a bibliography. I don’t know if it’s too much to ask them not only to summarize the piece they are posting to the bibliography, but also how it adds to the class discussion of the topic? That just makes them do a little more thinking about the source. But since it’s a low stakes kind of thing you may not want to go there. Anyway thanks for this post — it will help me with some of the things I am grappling with.

    • Ann Massey on July 18, 2014 at 2:55 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for the encouraging feedback, all! I have been giving this a lot of thought, mostly because I’m worrying about the syllabus that’s due shortly. It occurs to me that every learner (which really means, all of us) employs a variety of learning strategies, depending on the context. My middle son recently got his phone upgraded as he is heading off to “big school” (UGA) in a few weeks. Every so often, he’ll show me something he’s learned to do himself with his phone – like deposit his paycheck. Learning the forms of particular verbs for Latin, however, is something he’ll wait for the teacher to tell him how to do. And, he gets very particular about what makes a good vs. bad teacher – bad teachers make students learn for themselves. Maybe part of our jobs as teachers is to develop those self-directed approaches and attitudes in our disciplines. Students who are able to manage their finances with their phones can certainly manage the concepts in our courses, but maybe it’s up to us to persuade them.

  3. Ann, I loved this post and your final comment above. You have so clearly articulated many of my thoughts, this one in particular,
    ” I’m wondering if students who require more structure in assignments would find a completely learner-centered evironment to be, “an indiscrimate glut of information,” and have difficulty in making progress in any of the objectives”

    We do have to consider who are learners are and what the course outcomes and learner objectives are as we consider instructional & assessment methodologies. I also have come to the conclusion that I can include pieces of the learner directed approach, but I wouldn’t implement it for the entire course — LOVED YOUR TITLE!

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