Developing a Signature Pedagogy

 The concept of a “signature pedagogy” comes from the Lee Shulman and the Carnegie Foundation. They had studies teaching in a variety of disciplines and noted that in medical, law, theology, and other schools a specific approach to teaching and learning was used that was duplicated across multiple institutions of higher education.

A signature pedagogy means that students and faculty in these schools do not need to figure out how a class works or what the expectations are. This reduces the cognitive overhead to allow greater focus on the learning at hand.

As online colleges and universities have developed standardized and centralized curriculum using master courses, they usually create their own signature pedagogy, implicitly if not explicitly. These learning models help support the instructional design process as well as make it easier for students to navigate courses.

Developing a signature pedagogy is a decision-making process that includes selecting what is part of the learning model and what is not, and how included elements are expressed.

A key aspect of this process is to consider what is the role of faculty in the classroom. The default is that faculty are content experts and a source of content. However, faculty do much more than serve as a “sage on the stage.” Some of the other activities of faculty in the classroom include:

Curate: teachers choose what content and learning activities to include in a learning experience.

Sequence: teachers decide what order to present content and activities to maximize learning.

Prompt performance: teachers provide assignments and tasks that prompt learners to apply what they have learned.

  • Feedback: teachers provide feedback on learner performance.
  • Scaffolding: teachers provide supports to help learners learn a new topic.
  • Motivation: teachers are often cheerleaders pushing learners to keep trying.
  • Evaluate: teachers provide grades and evaluations on the quality of learner performance.
  • Answer questions: teachers answer learner questions.
  • Ask questions: teachers ask learners questions.
  • Explain: teachers provide explanations about content.
  • Highlight: teachers can identify the essential elements in a lesson.
  • Storytelling: teachers provide stories and examples.

When faculty are only thought of as sources of content, then the next logical step is to think that faculty can be replaced by technology.

Part of developing a signature pedagogy is making decisions about how the different parts of what faculty do will be accomplished. Some elements such as curation and sequencing are done as part of the instructional design process. While an instructional designer can assist this process, a faculty members deep understanding of the content is necessary to make informed decisions.

In some universities, the faculty role is divided into parts. For example, at Western Governors University, there are faculty who design the course curriculum. Other faculty serve as mentors that meet with students weekly and motivate and encourage the students. Different faculty are available to answer technical questions. Another group of faculty evaluate student work and provide feedback to students.

What are the components of a learning experience?

Another component of designing a signature pedagogy is to think about the elements of the learning environment and making decisions about how those elements will be integrated into a course.

A common misconception in education is that content is learning. The lecture method of instruction persists because of this idea even though we all know through experience that it does not work, and what learning does occur is usually short lived.

For true learning, we need to go beyond content to include additional components of the learning experience.

Learning content is typically very passive for the learner. The teacher pushes out content. This can occur through a lecture or presentation or through readings.

Passive learning elements include:

· Content — lecture/presentation (video or audio) recorded or live

· Content — reading

· Announcements (one-to-many) communications from faculty to students

To make learning more effective, we add active elements. These can include interactive exercises, objective assessments, or performance-based learning. Interactive exercises are simple assignments where students demonstrate recall of the learning. Matching words and definitions would be an interactive exercise. Objective assessments include quizzes, tests, and exams but also problem sets and any work a student does that has an objective (right or wrong) answer. Performance-based learning uses problems, scenarios, projects, or other assignments where the student uses the learning to demonstrate application of the learning, typically in a real-world or simulated context.

Active learning elements include:

· Interactive exercises

· Objective Assessment

· Performance-based learning

Finally, we add interactions between the teacher and the learner. Discussion provides the most common interactive element in a classroom. In the face-to-face environment, discussion is almost always synchronous where teacher and learners ask questions and respond at the same time. Online, synchronous discussion can use tools like chat, conference calls or videos. Typically, this is many-to-many communication where the teacher and all learners can interact. Lecture, in contrast, is one-to-many with the teacher communicating with all learners in one direction. Online learning also enables asynchronous communication where discussions are not at the same time. Email and discussion boards allow the conversation to be extended overtime. In addition, interactivity can be one-to-one where the teacher and learner communicate privately whether in person, email, chat, by phone, or by video conference.

Feedback provides an additional form of interactivity. We often think of the teacher providing feedback to the student, but we can also use peer feedback. Some tasks also have experiential feedback. If I am teaching archery, the learner has immediate feedback on whether she hit the target. Feedback is critical for helping a learner know whether she is achieving the goal of the learning (hitting the target) and how to improve performance.

Interactive learning elements include:

· Discussion one-to-one (email, chat, conference call/video)

· Discussion asynchronous many-to-many (email, discussion board)

· Discussion synchronous many-to-many (chat, conference call/video)

· Feedback (peer, instructor, experiential)

Models of Online Signature Pedagogies

The learning elements can be used to model a signature pedagogy. The following examples demonstrate how some of the larger online universities have implemented their signature pedagogies.

Online Learning Model 1.0

Many of the early adopters of online learning followed a similar model of asynchronous online learning. Typically, students have assigned readings each week, participate actively in discussion boards, and submit some a paper or project on a weekly basis. Faculty are available by email.

· Content — reading

· Announcements (one-to-many) communications from faculty to students

· Performance-based learning

· Discussion one-to-one (email)

· Discussion asynchronous many-to-many (discussion board)

· Feedback (instructor)

MOOC Model

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) resulted from the idea of how to make online courses available at a scale of 100s or even 1000s of students at once. The model focuses on videos in place of traditional in class lectures. Quizzes that be automatically graded provide the main assessment as these do not require manual intervention. Peer discussion boards and projects provided another dimension for learners to demonstrate what they know without requiring faculty.

· Content — lecture/presentation recorded video

· Discussion asynchronous many-to-many (discussion board)

· Objective Assessment

· Performance-based learning (peer reviewed)

Online Flipped Model

The model was developed as an online implementation of the flipped classroom and inspired by the MOOC model. The flipped classroom is an innovation in traditional, face-to-face learning. Traditionally, in class students receive content in lectures in class and then do homework on their own. In the flipped classroom, lectures are provided via video outside of class so class time can be used for performance-based assessments with faculty support. The online flipped model uses the same approach for online learning. Videos were filmed in advanced (1 hour per week split into 6 videos). Videos were followed by low-stakes knowledge checks. Each week also had a low-stakes review (30 objective questions.) Textbooks were included. In the 8 course weeks, 3 had objective exams and 5 had papers or projects. Discussion was used but was low stakes and not used for attendance. Twice per class faculty had video sessions with students that were recorded. Faculty provided feedback on papers and projects including audio feedback.

· Content — lecture/presentation recorded video

· Content — reading

· Announcements (one-to-many communications from faculty to students)

· Objective Assessment (3 exams, weekly reviews)

· Performance-based learning (5 per class)

· Discussion one-to-one (email)

· Discussion asynchronous many-to-many (email, discussion board but low stakes)

· Discussion synchronous many-to-many (conference video) — two times per class

· Feedback (instructor including audio feedback)

Synchronous Asynchronous Hybrid

Some institutions layer synchronous elements on top of the traditional online asynchronous model. This approach uses the standard online learning model 1.0 with weekly readings, discussions, and assignments. These can be augmented by twice a week one-hour faculty live sessions that are recorded. Faculty conduct a synchronous class for the hour with a presentation and interactive elements. Other approaches can also be used. Project/scenario-based learning can be used in classes where students are given assignments that are designed to simulate real-world applications versus academic papers.

· Content — lecture/presentation (video) live twice weekly

· Content — reading

· Announcements (one-to-many) communications from faculty to students

· Performance-based learning

· Discussion one-to-one (email)

· Discussion asynchronous many-to-many (discussion board)

· Feedback (instructor)

Competency-based Model

A few universities use a radically different approach to online learning focused on competencies. The courses have readings and some additional videos and other learning resources. Students must complete either a project or an exam to complete the course. They can submit their assessment multiple times. Exams do not provide detailed feedback, just score by competency. In an academic term, students must complete a minimum number of units to make satisfactory progress. Each week, students have a one-on-one call with their mentor. The mentor is faculty but not a subject matter expert. For course questions there are faculty available by email or appointment to answer questions.

· Content — lecture/presentation — some recorded video

· Content — reading

· Objective Assessment in some classes

· Performance-based learning in some classes

· Discussion one-to-one conference calls with mentor; Email with course faculty

· Feedback from evaluator

Traditional Higher Ed Model

Traditional colleges and universities have no signature pedagogy. Classes are taught based on how the faculty decides to teach the course with no standardization. As a result, classes are all different including different assignment due dates and expectations. This creates a situation where students have to figure out how to navigate each class. This adds overhead to the learning experience.

Signature Pedagogy for Individual Teachers

The biggest pay-off of a signature pedagogy is when it is universally adopted. When students do not need to learn how to navigate every class, they can focus on the learning within the course. A signature pedagogy reduces the cognitive overhead. There is still a benefit for individual teachers. By thinking about and being explicit in your personal signature pedagogy, you can teach with purpose and design. It also provides a basis for improving your teaching based on the success of students. When there is no explicit teaching and learning model, it can be challenging to make changes. A signature pedagogy also provides a way to communicate to students what is expected of them and what to expect from their teacher.

If you are interested in discussing developing your own signature pedagogy, let me know. My philosophy of “you do you,” there are multiple right answers. Effective teaching has to balance between the personality and strength of the teacher and the needs of the audience of learners. My coaching services are free. You can contact me through my web site.