Newer Systems of Individualized Learning
Each year, several hundred on-campus students at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh complete traditional music courses in non-traditional ways. General students earn credits in Music Appreciation—a variable credit course—through self-study of its modularized content in multimedia instructional packages. They attend no group sessions, and many of them find it unnecessary to consult with the teacher of record. They work within their own schedules and finish at any point within the term for which they are registered. Education majors in Elements of Music exercise options to progress—through self-directed study—at an accelerated pace and finish prior to the end of the semester, or to follow a set lecture-laboratory-testing schedule over the duration of the semester. Instrumental music education majors in String Techniques complete a one-credit module in cello techniques, pursuing individual activities provided by an illustrated course guide and enhanced by audio tapes. Similar techniques (plus scheduled lecture-demonstrations) are used in Voice Class where majors with a primary or secondary emphasis in voice are required to complete a sequence of four one-credit courses in the fundamentals of singing as a prerequisite for admission to private study. Time for completion of the voice requirement varies with the ability and commitment of the student. In these courses, student academic performance has been high, and faculty student credit hour generation has been well above the average target set for the department. The generic methodology is called individualization.
Learning experiences which are planned and implemented for the individual student have existed in higher education for a long time: the tutorial system is very old; independent study programs are employed in all disciplines (contract learning is a more recent spin-off); one-to-one studio instruction is crucial to individual development in the visual and performing arts. Skinnerian psychology in the 1960s prompted the production of programmed books and audio tapes to assist individuals in developing cognitive and aural behaviors in the area of basic musicianship. More recently, computer-assisted instruction has contributed to segments of instruction, particularly in the forms of skill, drill, and simulation exercises. The individualization in vogue today, however, connotes a concern for improving the performance of individual students over the entire content of a course enrolling large numbers. This article will examine the fundamental components of individualized designs, along with occasional examples of development and implementation of individualized instruction from the music courses at UW—O.
Elements of Individualization
Newer modes of individualizing instruction and learning differ from the older and continuing methods in two basic ways. First, the courses involved are usually those delivered traditionally through lecture, demonstration, and laboratory—skill performance. When these courses are redesigned for greater individualization, there is a necessary change in the instructional package and in the role of the teacher. Second, an individualized system alters the nature of the student's involvement and commitment by offering increased flexibility and options. Individualized instruction is characterized by the inclusion in its design of some, or all, of the following elements:
- Time and space are flexible. Students should be able to progress through the instructional material, toward established goals, at different rates and take the post-tests when ready. The term "self-paced" is used frequently to denote the flexible-time element. Flexible space becomes possible as a result of choices in time frames and other learner options. Some instructional resources can be packaged for placement in settings other than the formal classroom, such as library learning materials centers, dormitories, or at selected off-campus sites.
- Optional assessments of a student's proficiencies can be made at the entry point, providing information leading to either remediation or exemption—on a unit-by-unit basis—in meeting the required performance objectives.
- Methods of instruction and student evaluation can have alternate forms. There are times when different styles are effective for different learners. One of the simplest models is to provide choices between lecture-discussion sessions, tutored study-practice periods, and independent study or practice. The forms of evaluation might include the choice of a written test, a written paper, an oral test or interview, or a taped performance.
- Course content can provide the learner with options. Beyond the basic subject matter, choices in content within or among units can enhance the relevance of the course to the special needs and interests of the student.
- The role of the teacher shifts from that of a broadcaster of information to that of a coordinator of a learning system, from a classroom performer to an author-producer. Other primary faculty responsibilities include developing and maintaining appropriate instructional material, consulting with individual students, and monitoring their progress.
Systems of Individualization
Three modes of instruction that contain significant components of individualization have emerged in higher education during the 1960s and 1970s. Each has its identifiable features, its practitioners across the country, its literature, and its documented research. The Personalized System of Instruction (PSI)—also called the Keller Plan after its architect, Fred Keller—is perhaps the most widely known of the three. Characteristic elements of PSI are: 1) a self-instructional feature which enables the student to do a great deal of independent study from prepared materials such as course guides and audiovisual packages; 2) a self-paced feature which permits the student to move through the course at a speed suitable to his ability and commensurate with other demands upon his time; 3) a mastery-level requirement, usually 80 or 90 percent, which allows the student to go ahead to a new unit of material after demonstrating a designated level of proficiency in the previous unit; 4) the use of student proctors—also called tutors or assistants—who serve as extensions of the teacher in providing direct help to individual students and supply the personal-social component of the educational process; and 5) the selective use of lectures for the primary purpose of motivation, rather than for the delivery of information.
The second of the contemporary individualized modes is the Audio-Tutorial System developed in 1961 by S.N. Postlethwait, Professor of Biology at Purdue University. This approach uses no formal lectures, recitations, or laboratory sessions. Its main features are: 1) a learning-center location that has individual booths or carrels with equipment and materials needed for a specific segment of the coursework; 2) an audiotape from which the senior professor's voice guides the student through a series of observations, exercises, and activities as means to achieving the objectives of the unit of study; 3) small group assemblies held weekly, as needed for the purpose of presentations and discussions related to what the students have covered individually that week; and 4) minicourses which are complete units of subject matter of varying lengths—each with a set of objectives and program of activities—and which provide the student with content options from among these "courses within a course."
The Syracuse Plan (developed and implemented at Syracuse University by Robert M. Diamond and his colleagues) is sometimes identified as another definable system of individualization. The model shares many features with the other two systems, but gives more attention to choices in the form of instruction and evaluation, and procedures for diagnosis, remediation, and exemption.
Finally, at the operational level of a specific course, some variation or combination of elements from the basic models is often more effective than any one of the three in its "pure" form. Given a license for adaptation, it is possible to use selected systemic elements to design instruction and courseware appropriate to a variety of disciplines, course levels, and target student populations. The newer systems of individualization were first employed successfully in the natural sciences. Implementation has now spread through the social sciences, mathematics, professional schools, graduate curricula, continuing education programs, and (recently) into the humanities. Certain areas of music study seem natural targets for adaptations of the PSI and Audio-Tutorial systems. At UW—O, two multiple-section music courses that are common on many campuses have been redesigned into individualized models so that students can elect to enroll in either a traditional or individualized section. A brief description is relevant at this point.
Individualized Music Appreciation (for the general student) is in a modified audio-tutorial system. Each of three one-credit modules is divided into several units of study, and each unit contains several topical lessons. A highly detailed course guide provides the student with all of the printed instructions and subject matter. The content of each lesson is delivered to the individual learner via an audiotape, or a sound-slide program, at a carrel in the learning materials center of the campus library. Unit post-tests are taken at a central testing center as soon as the student is ready. Students exercise an option in course content by electing to register for one, two, or all three of the one-credit modules, for each module is independent and free-standing. Maximum flexibility exists with regard to when the student does the work and over what period of time this takes place. Completion time varies from a few weeks to a full semester. Furthermore, most students find it unnecessary to consult with an instructor (no proctors are used) during the entire experience. The audio-tutorial system (with sprinklings of other elements) becomes completely autotutorial for these students. The design functions well in courses which have their main focus on analytical listening to music, along with collateral lectures and readings.
Elements of Music is the sort of basic course required for majors in elementary and special education in many college curricula. Two intrinsic factors make it a prime candidate for individualization in a modified PSI model. First, students in the course have wide differences in the amount and quality of their previous musical experience—ranging from no formal learning to several years of instrumental performance. Flexibility, at least in time and space, is an attractive factor in treating this heterogeneous group equitably and, at the same time, facilitating achievement of the instructional objectives. Second, the goals of the course are to develop minimal performance skills, as well as knowledge of and about the organization of sound. Odds for attainment of the skills by inexperienced students are increased by making available individual attention from a teacher or proctor. Students in the individualized section at UW—O use a combined course guide and textbook designed and written in instructional units to meet their needs. Lecture-demonstration tapes support the printed material and are available at the departmental learning materials center. Individuals with more experience or strong motivation have the option of studying and practicing independently in order to accelerate the date of completion. (This provision seems to be more satisfactory than exemption, or credit by examination, because there is a better guarantee that the learner possesses all of the expected competencies.) Other students can elect to attend regularly scheduled lectures by the teacher and study-practice sessions under the supervision of student proctors. Each unit post-test contains a written segment, taken at the central testing center, and an individual skill test scheduled with the teacher.
Courseware: The Instructional Package
"Courseware" is a term used here to designate any physical form of instructional material through which either information, subject matter, or evaluation of progress is transmitted to the learner. An instructional package is the totality of all of the forms of courseware for a specific course. New systems of individualized instruction rely upon carefully designed and produced materials to guide the student through the learning and evaluating activities, and present the subject matter to him. The learning resources that are employed can include print materials (both verbal and graphic) and nonprint media, such as sound recordings, films, slides, and videotapes. Although a specialized expertise is involved, most teachers with a commitment to the idea can learn to be successful in creating original material and using published works for their purposes.
One essential piece of courseware is a course guide—preferably one that is printed and bound—which can be placed in the hands of each student. An early task for the teacher-developer is to determine an overall division and sequence for the content of the course. A standard internal design would first break the subject matter into modules, with each module corresponding to one credit of work. Each module, in turn, would be divided into learning units that correspond to approximately one week's course work if completed under traditional methods of instruction during a semester. The written guide, at minimum, is a road map through the course; at its maximum potential, it can also serve as a complete textbook of original content. Qualities of detail, directness, and clarity achieved in the guide bear direct relations to the degree of independence and success that is possible for the learner. A well constructed course guide will usually include three main parts: 1) course procedures, 2) module introduction, and 3) units of study subdivided into an overview, objectives, learning activities, and assessment.
The section of the course guide titled Course Procedures should present a general description of the learning mode employed throughout the course, state the overall purpose of the course, list resource persons who can provide help, and specify the instructional materials and facilities the student will need. Course procedures should also include entries of more specific information stated explicitly. In a sense, this section of the guide forms a contract with the student. It is here that the individual is informed about the sequence of modules and units, time schedules for which he is responsible, options that can be exercised, required conferences and assessments, procedures for the evaluation of student progress, computation of final grades, and any other pertinent information about the operation of the course.
The Module Introduction provides an overview of one major segment of the course, places it logically within the course as a whole, and explains the organization of the subject matter it contains. A well written statement can also provide motivation to the student for entering into units within the module.
Units of Study comprise the main substance of the course and the course guide. They are sometimes called individualized learning units, and each functions as an entity of its own. The teacher can exert complete control over both the content and sequence of these divisions of the subject matter. Designing the unit presents an opportunity to apply a knowledge of learning theory, along with the meaning and organization of the academic discipline, in planning for the learner's progression through each unit and from one to the next. The individual wholeness of each unit resides in its internal construction, which opens with an overview and statement of the learner's objectives, continues with learning activities through which the objectives can be achieved, and closes with an evaluation of the student's progress toward the objectives. The Overview elaborates upon the title of the unit, or states a global objective, and relates the content to the rest of the course as well as to the needs and interests of the students.
A clear written statement of Objectives is an absolutely necessary feature of an individualized learning unit, for it is in this statement that the teacher identifies what is worth knowing of and about the subject and what the student should be able to do as a result of the learning experience. Various preferential names are used for instructional objectives—behavioral, behavior-specific, learner, competency-based, performance-based, and probably others. "Performance objective" is a personal preference for the reason that performance is the execution of an action, and an objective is an end or aim of action or feeling. A performance objective, then, is a statement which expresses an intended or expected outcome of an instructional experience. The outcome is presumed to be in some way observable and measurable. Skill in formulating and writing performance objectives can be improved with an understanding of two structural principles. First, an objective at the instructional level should flow from, and be supportive of, other planning levels. A normal sequence is from a broad educational goal to general course or module objectives to more specific unit or learning-activity objectives.
The second structural principle of a performance objective is that it has three components, namely: 1) the observable performance which the learner is to do as evidence of achievement of the objective; 2) the important conditions under which the performance is to be demonstrated; and 3) the predetermined criterion, or standard, for the minimal acceptable performance which defines how well the learner must perform. Criteria sometimes can be included in the stated objective; in other cases, a more global criterion level—such as an acceptable percentage of correct responses—is part of the unit post-test procedure and grading. The following examples have been excerpted from the stated objectives for units of study in music course guides at UW—O:
- Name any major key [observable performance] from its key signature written on a treble clef staff [condition]. Acceptable performance is to accurately name at least nine of ten flat/sharp keys within a one-minute time limitation [criterion].
- Given a recorded excerpt of unfamiliar music which begins with the main musical idea and continues with other musical material [condition], recognize aurally and name the procedure used in the continuing material as repetition of, variation of, or development of the main idea [observable performance].
- Given the written score of the melody with primary chord markings for songs listed below [condition], play on a piano—at an appropriate tempo—the song melody in the right hand with chording accompaniment in the left hand [observable performance]. Acceptable performance is: 1) grade of A—any three songs selected by the teacher with no more than one hesitation or error in pitch/rhythm per song; 2) grade of B—any two songs of your selection with no more than one hesitation or error per song; 3) grade of C—any one song of your selection with no more than one hesitation or error [criteria].
Performance objectives can be written for any of the three major areas of learned behavior—cognitive, psychomotor, affective—and for various levels within the category. Example 1 (above) is in the cognitive area and at a relatively low, albeit important, level of response—a simple recall of fact and principle. Example 2 (also in the cognitive domain, with a correlative listening skill) requires the higher levels of analysis, synthesis, and transfer. Psychomotor skill and neuromuscular coordination (plus cognitive behavior) are basic in Example 3, for performance in playing an instrument, as well as response to the durations of patterns of sound, are involved. Because musical performance skills are strongly conditioned by previous experience over a longer time than found in the typical background of most students in the Elements of Music course, three criterion-levels of acceptable performance (grade A, B, or C) are specified.
The section of a unit of study designated Learning Activities must present the student with selected and sequenced experiences that facilitate his attainment of the objectives, and instruct him with regard to the learning resources he should use. Almost any activity used in other instructional methods is possible for inclusion in a more individualized style, such as:
- Reading from original material in the course guide, a basic textbook, or supplementary articles and books. When the material to be read is from a source outside the course guide, a common practice is to include study questions, with space for the student to write responses, in the format of the guide itself.
- Practicing solving problems, applying knowledge, constructing forms, writing, playing, singing, listening, or reading music. All instructions and, in some cases, material for practice should be contained in the guide.
- Listening to sound recordings, live performances, or panel discussions. The written guide can include the complete text of verbal material on a tape, clues for analytical listening to music, or study questions for what is heard. Specific objectives or assignments related to performances or discussions can be included as well.
- Viewing slide programs, films or filmstrips, videotapes, or exhibits. The written guide should contain study questions, a script, or a summary of materials to be viewed.
- Participating in a specified experiment, group discussion, tutorial session, or field trip. Here again, contents of the course guide should include aids to the student for achieving optimum value from the experience.
The preceding summary of types of potential learning activities implies that a mixture of print and nonprint educational media is frequently involved in a system of individualized learning. The instructional package for most music courses will contain a media mix that has audio and visual resources as integral components. Each of the individualized music courses at UW—O has a course guide that also serves as a teacher-produced textbook. Given a sufficient amount of production time, original material can be most efficient and effective in improving learner performance because the content can be delimited, oriented to the needs of the specific student population in the course, and focused on achievement of the stated objectives. Each course also uses teacher-produced audiotapes, and the Music Appreciation course has several synchronized slide-sound programs. The audio form adds a teacher's persona, vocal emphases, and pronunciations—a personal dimension on a one-to-one basis. The visual portion of the slide-tape programs is effective in presenting relevant graphic forms, pictorial representations of persons, events, or art works of an era, charts of musical forms, pictures of musical instruments, or excerpts from a written score. Scripts for the verbal content of the audio courseware are included in the course guide.
An individualized learning unit should close with some form of evaluation of the student's progress toward achieving the performance objectives of the unit. This unit evaluation can be in the form of an ungraded interim assessment which is either self-administered from quiz questions provided in the course guide, taken at a computer display terminal, or done orally with a proctor or teacher. On the other hand, a unit post-test can be administered in written or oral form, graded, and computed in the final course grade. In any case, requirements and procedures should be included in the course guide.
Evaluation of Student Progress
A complete instructional package should include the actual tools (tests) constructed to assist in evaluating the learner's progress. Certain basic guidelines are helpful in approaching the task of constructing valid and reliable tests for an individualized course. First, test items must evaluate progress toward achievement of the stated objectives, rather than content per se, for this is the only valid basis of assessing changes in the learner's performance. Teachers are fairly successful in writing objectives and devising tools for testing various levels of cognitive behavior and skill performance. The affective domain causes more problems. If objectives in the areas of attitudes, values, and subjective musical responses are included for a unit of study, then some attempt at evaluating progress toward these should be made. Tools for assessing changes in attitudes and values might utilize either a pre-test and post-test questionnaire or the oral interview technique. Aesthetic sensitivity should be observable in a student's musical performance. Otherwise, it is generally assumed that cognitive and affective behaviors in a musical response must, and do, develop together when the focus is on the fluxes and changes of organized sound in a piece of music. Separation of the two, for testing purposes, may be impossible and ill-advised.
A second guideline for test construction would state that the very concept of individualized learning mandates criterion-referenced testing. Criterion referencing relates a student's performance and standing to a criterion level of mastery, while norm referencing does this in relation to others in a group (grading on the curve). What should be the criterion level for acceptable performance in an individualized course? Contemporary research suggests that although there are individual differences among learners, there is much less difference in the cognitive capacities of college students than thought. The main variables are previous experience and time. Given time and attention, most students (including older ones) can learn most things confined to intellectual processes. For this reason, some proponents of the newer systems of individualized instruction suggest a criterion mastery level as high as 80 or even 90 percent. Skills in musical performance are another matter. It is doubtful, for instance, whether most of the general students who are inexperienced in playing, singing, or reading music can achieve (for objectives in these areas) criterion levels as high as 80 or 90 percent—70 percent (the traditional grade of C) is more realistic for minimal acceptable performance.
The third important decision regarding test construction concerns the type of test items to use. Any kind which demonstrates mastery of the objective will work for individualized courses. Multiple-choice items which have four or five alternatives are excellent for the purposes of maximum content coverage, economy in student-teacher time, and objectivity in scoring and student feedback. They are also easily related to specific objectives. Essay items are best when there is an expectation that the learner should be able to express his thoughts in writing or exhibit some creative response. Oral examinations may be less threatening to some students and can be accomplished either person-to-person or through an audiotape or videotape medium. Performance-skill testing is a form of oral examination, and one that must be used as a direct way of evaluating progress in musical performance.
A post-test in music is often a combination of types of test items. All of the UW—O individualized music courses draw heavily on multiple-choice items for written tests, and all except Music Appreciation use individual oral examinations of performance skills. The written tests are provided to the individual student upon his application at the central testing center. This facility is equipped to supplement the written word with test stimuli from audiotapes, videotapes, and cathode-ray display tube terminals. Test security can be assured by creating an item pool (stored in the computer) of questions of equivalent difficulty from which two or more equivalent forms of the test can be drawn. Test papers are graded immediately by an optical scanning process, and the student is informed of the results. Conferences about performance on a test (or any other academic concerns) can be scheduled with the teacher.
Simply stated, the decision to individualize a course should be made in the belief that it is an alternative methodology that will produce benefits to both the learner and teacher, and that it is an idea whose time has come. The thrust of higher education in the 1950s has been described as an elitist model of selective admission in the name of scholastic standards. During the 1960s, the theme changed to one of egalitarianism, with access models for administering equal educational rights for all. Emphasis in the 1970s (and possibly the 1980s) seems to have shifted to a search for learning models that will provide a better quality of teaching and learning for each. Individualization and personalization of learning is one model that holds promise for improving the performance of individuals who comprise the diverse student populations being served today.
Individualization facilitates learning. This is a conclusion that might be drawn from the better designed and more reliable of the hundreds of pieces of research done in the last decade. Test scores, and the total number of A and B grades, are higher in individualized courses than in traditional modes of instruction for the same subject. Critics would say this is because of a lowering of standards and the inflation of grades; proponents would say the reasons are to be found in a better designed instructional package, a more efficient and flexible system of delivering instruction to the learner, a higher expectation (criterion level) of the student, and a shift from teacher-directed to self-directed learning. Abilities to generalize have shown improvement when this behavior is included as an objective, and retention of things learned has increased when later units require application of material from previous units. (Existing evidence suggests that students taught by either conventional or individualized methods do poorly on tests of retention.) Research also reveals some changes in student attitudes. A significant percentage—as high as 80 percent in some studies—of students who have taken courses using various instructional designs consider individualization to be the best method in their experience. Students also believe they work harder, or at least spend more time, on individualized courses. On the less positive side, the literature shows that a larger than normal percentage of students withdraw from individualized courses, that the lowest achievers continue to be low achievers, and that some students dislike the loss of the security of a fixed routine found in other methods. Data from student records in the UW—O music courses give a slightly modified picture of the preceding generalizations: students do not withdraw if they have made a commitment to the extent of having completed 25 percent of the course; students do work hard; low achievers do attain the minimum acceptable criterion level when this is set at 70 percent; a higher percentage of students do earn A and B grades, and a lower percentage fail. Student evaluations—administered by UW—O's Testing Research and Services—of the individualized sections are high, but comparative data for traditional sections is unavailable.
Changes in the role of a teacher of an individualized course have been cited already. A large investment of development time, as well as a sense of professional satisfaction, usually accompanies the role change. Time and energy spent in designing and producing the instructional package can become so great as to justify rewarding the teacher in some concrete way, such as a load-credit factor or extra monetary compensation (from internal or extramural sources). Once the course is on line, most teachers use the extra time available to consult individual students and assist them in using the system to achieve optimum rewards as learners. The experience can provide a revitalizing alternative to the replication of lecturing and testing large groups of students. Individualization in the newer systems can also improve the cost-effectiveness of instruction in a high-cost discipline such as music. Student credit hours have increased in ratio to teacher contact hours for the courses at UW—O.
Decisions to individualize are sometimes made for programmatic reasons. Modularizing disciplinary subject matter is an excellent way of packaging it for inclusion in an interdisciplinary course. With most of the basic information delivered to the student through individualized self-study units, the focus of lectures, panels, and group discussions can be on integrating ideas. The design of the instructional package for some courses makes possible a transfer from the originator to another teacher or adjunct faculty person. Transferability and portability of the package increases the feasibility of individualizing courses for use in cooperative education programs between colleges and high schools, industries, public libraries, and governmental or health agencies. (Music Appreciation modules at UW—O have been placed in public libraries for easier access to adult learners; courses in other disciplines are offered in high schools for dual credit.) Continuing education programs are beginning to rely, in part, on courses whose methodology includes such features as self-study, self-pacing, mixed media, and delivery to students where they are.
Finally, and in spite of numerous reasons for individualization, this style and method is not best for all courses or all teachers. Other successful methods should remain without the threat of aimless replacement. A course should be individualized only when it is determined that the quality of learner performance or programmatic needs will be served better; a teacher should attempt such a task only after a self-commitment to the idea. Music education has no strong history of initiating innovative thrusts that send waves of change through the institution of higher education, but music educators do have a good record of adapting and applying new ideas to the evolution of their own art and skill. Now may be a favorable time for more music faculty in colleges and universities to explore the potential that exists in the newer systems of individualizing learning for selected music courses and programs.