At some point in our lives, most of us will have had to write an essay. And many of us will have left that essay until the last minute.
This situation is the product of poor learning design. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with an essay, it’s that we shouldn’t put learners in a position where they can leave all the work until right before the hand-in.
Let’s face it, everyone is busy. Most students now have to work alongside their studies, as do most adult learners. Empathising with this reality reveals the need to build assignments that enable them to develop their work incrementally.
The benefits of ‘little and often’
This is where a ‘little and often’ approach to learning design can help. Instead of asking for an essay or an exam at the end of a course module, learning designers can break the assignment into smaller tasks. By asking learners to produce small pieces of work on a more regular basis, both they and the tutor can see how much progress they have made, and how far they still have to go.
One way to do this is by setting a short task for them to complete each week, and then asking them to upload it to a blog or ‘learning log’. This both enables them to consolidate what they’ve learned during that week, and develop their evidence bit by bit as they move through the course or module. By the time learners reach the end, they are more likely to have experienced deeper learning as they have applied what they have learned in each week of the course.
‘Little and often’ is also sometimes referred to as ‘chunking’. Research has shown that breaking content into smaller chunks – particularly video content – can increate engagement and achievement.
Make learning visible
A key benefit of a little-and-often approach to assessment is that it makes learning visible, and the value of making learning visible is based on extensive research (Hattie, 2009). Not only can you see what your learners have learned, you can provide feedback on it at the time where that feedback is most valuable – i.e. while they still have time to apply it. Making learning visible also means your learners can see how others are progressing. This taps into the power of accountability – if your learners can see the work that others are creating, it can often motivate them to improve their own work.
By the time the learner reaches the end of the course, s/he should have a collection of evidence that they can use for their end-of-course assessment. Furthermore, if there are any gaps in their evidence, it should be fairly straightforward for them to revisit that online.
‘Little and often’ is also one of the ADSHE seven principles for supporting neurodivergent students in HE (Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education). Breaking learning into smaller chunks creates more inclusive, flexible curricula that are more likely to support a broader range of learning needs.
And the good news is that it benefits all learners.
Got a question about learning design?
The please just post it in the comments below, and the Ding team would be happy to try and answer it for you!
You might also like:
- Writing aims, learning outcomes and assessment criteria– In this post, Ding’s Dr Nicholas Houghton provides top tips on the tricky topic of learning outcomes.
- Humphries, B. and Clark, D. (2021) An examination of student preferences for traditional didactic or chunking teaching strategies in an online learning environment. Research in Learning Technology. 29: 2405
- Hattie, J. (2008) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 500 Meta-Analyses Relating To Achivenement. London: Routledge.
Thank you to:
- Ray Martin for help with researching this article.
- Alice Pasqual on Unsplash for another fabulous photo!