Sunday, March 14, 2010

Problem-solving in adult learning

Since I work primarily with adults, I'm especially interested in the ways learning theory informs instructional practice in older learners. As I'm discovering, there are quite a few resources out there to help instructional designers work with adult learners.

The International Journal of Learning (IJL):
This journal's focus is very broad: "a forum for any person with an interest in, and concern for, education at any of its levels and in any of its forms, from early childhood, to schools, to higher education and lifelong learning — and in any of its sites, from home to school to university to workplace." Recent articles cover a variety of topics from the care and feeding of teachers through sexual identity to the implications of teaching in a multi-language environment.

I discovered IJL because of Robert Toynton's work on integrating various learning theories into a pedagogic approach he calls "jigsaw"-based instruction (Toynton, 2007). The idea is that groups of adult learners, working on "group-supported implicit learning through discovery", are often able to learn a great deal by mobilizing implicit (un-taught) knowledge that exists already within the group. He describes the jigsaw approach as having six main points: learning by doing, discovering, elaborating, collaborating, experiencing, and being supported (p. 61). He integrates these ideas within a constructivist framework designed to help learners share in discovering (and therefore owning) new knowledge. This approach seems particularly well suited to adults, who typically have vast amounts of implicit knowledge in the form of life experience. I particularly appreciate Toynton's guidelines for teachers: stay out of the way, let the students discuss and argue, and only intervene when you're fairly sure they won't reach the goal without your help. When you must intervene, do so as minimally as possible.

As Toynton points out, the jigsaw is "particularly useful, for learning and teaching with groups of varied levels of experience and prior knowledge" (p. 64). By placing learners in small groups in a shared problem-solving environment, the jigsaw method supports group trust while mitigating the effects of different knowledge levels. Students with a lot of task-specific knowledge are free to use it, where less-experienced students may feel comfortable learning by listening and watching. The jigsaw method describes some of the best teachers I've ever seen, and I look forward to reading Toynton's other works to see more specific examples.

Learning and Instruction:
Learning and Instruction also displays interest in learning, across "a diversity of learning and instructional settings", and places some emphasis on adult learning. Its mandate is to publish "the most advanced scientific research". It seems as though articles from the journal receive a lot of citations, which is good to see.

Rieber, Tzeng, and Tribble (2004) describe an experiment in teaching college students about basic Newtonian physics using a computer simulation that allows practical experimentation without requiring initial understanding of the physics involved—focusing on "experiences, rather than explanations" (p. 308). Within this framework, they evaluated the result of using single- and multi-medium instruction in the context of dual coding theory.

Rieber et al. designed their study to see whether it was possible to improve referential processing of information, to the point that students might learn principles of physics that they could successfully transfer to other problem domains. Their methods are interesting in part because they used a ball-and-impulse computer game to teach and assess the students' understanding of physics.

They suggest that, rather than using simulations as a post-instructional assessment, it may be more effective to integrate simulation into initial experience--and that brief instructional moments may significantly help to diminish cognitive load and improve learning. Something I found worth noting was this: "students with little prior knowledge in a domain do not necessarily make good decisions when it comes to their own learning" (p. 320). When the researchers removed the experimental constraints on access to instruction, most participants eschewed help--with detrimental results to their assessment scores. Within a constructivist framework, teachers need to pay close attention to the fact that learners sometimes need us to intervene and teach, because they will not otherwise seek help.

Maybe I'm just fascinated by the possibilities of using physics simulations to test learning theories because I used to be a computer scientist and a physics geek. But it seems very much germane to my studies in instructional design and technology, and I look forward to reading more of the research cited in Rieber et al.


Rieber, L., Tzeng, S-C., and Tribble, K. (2004). Discovery learning, representation, and explanation within a computer-based simulation: finding the right mix. Learning and Instruction, 14, 307-323. Retrieved on March 14, 2010, from Elsevier, doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2004.06.008 .

Toynton, R. (2007). Theorising 'jigsaws': investigating the transferable elements of a problem-solving approach to teaching and learning. International Journal of Learning, 14(5), 59-66. Retrieved on March 14, 2010, from Education Research Complete database.

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