Smith and Ragan open their book with a series of solid, foundational definitions. As they describe it, “instructional design” is “the systematic and reflective process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials, activities, information resources, and evaluation” (p. 2). “Instruction” is defined (for the authors’ expressed purposes, at least) in part as relatively distinct from terms such as “training,” “teaching,” and “education.” The term “design,” in turn, Smith and Ragan note, “implies a systematic or intensive planning and ideation process prior to the development of something or the execution of some plan in order to solve a problem” (p. 4).
The authors go on to describe the instructional design process—or, rather, (indicating that there is no “one size fits all solution” to the design process), they offer a framework or guide to some of the more used/accepted approaches to the process. Smith and Ragan also qualify their descriptions by noting that, while the instructional design process “may often be portrayed as linear, in practice it is frequently iterative, moving back and forth between activities as the project develops” (p. 11).
The two foundational poles the authors present in the second chapter are rationalism–of which constructivism is one form, wherein “reason is the primary source of knowledge and that reality is constructed rather than discovered” (p .19)—and empiricism—”sometimes termed objectivism,… postulates that knowledge is acquired through experience…. [, and that] experience allows an individual to come to know a reality that is objective and singular” (p. 22).
Smith and Ragan subcategorize Constructivism into individual constructivism, social constructivism, and contextualism. Between rationalism-constructivism and empiricism-objectivism, the authors place their own position, “‘Pragmatism,’ which might be considered a ‘middle ground’ between rationalism (constructivism) and empiricism…. Although pragmatists, like empiricists, believe that knowledge is acquired through experience, they believe that this knowledge is interpreted through reason and is temporary and tentative” (22).
In this chapter, Smith and Ragan discuss the evaluation of instructional materials. This usually happens at two, bookending points in the instructional development process. The first kind, “formative evaluation,” “evaluates the materials to determine the weakness in the instruction so that revisions can be made to make them more effective and efficient” (p. 327). From this evaluation the designer can then determine “whether the instructional materials are ‘there’ yet, or whether [the designer needs] to continue the design process” (p. 327). The second second kind, “summative evaluation,” is conducted “after the materials have been implemented into the instructional contexts for which they were designed,” at which point “designers may be involved in the process of evaluating the materials in terms of their effectiveness in order to provide data for decision makers who may adopt or continue to use the materials” (p. 327).
I haven’t yet seen too much behind the scenes (or too much of how the sausage is made, perhaps) for primary and secondary education. All the factors involved in design, implementation and evaluation seem extraordinarily complex. And, as Smith and Ragan note throughout their discussion in this chapter, budgetary concerns are an omnipresent force in all these considerations. I cannot imagine being an educator having to conduct all of these activities amidst budget crises.
In this chapter Smith and Ragan look at three kinds of “assessment[s] of student learning, or in common language, ‘testing’”—“entry skills (to see if learners are ready for the instruction), preassessments (to see what learners already know of the material to be taught), and postassessments (to see what learners learned from instruction)” (p. 123). Following this exploration, they examine “the characteristics of assessment instruments: validity, reliability, and practicality,” finding that “trade-offs must frequently be made among these qualities in designing assessments” (p. 123)
I found particularly interesting Smith and Ragan’s sketch of the difficulties of using an essay as a format for assessment (p. 114). Their concern about objectivity makes sense, of course, but seems at once to overthink and under-think the problem. Having only taught college-level composition, I’d be interested to learn how essays in primary and secondary schools are used, evaluated, etc. these days (both before and after the Common Core launch). In the composition I was trained/instructed to teach, the basis for evaluating an essay was argument development, connections between texts considered, and overall critical thinking skills.
“The process of task analysis,” Smith and Ragan note, “transforms goal statements into a form that can be used to guide subsequent design” (p. 76). This form “describe[s] what the learners should know or be able to do at the completion of instruction and the prerequisite skills and knowledge that learners will need in order to achieve those goals” (p. 76). The primary steps in conducting such an analysis are:
1. Write a learning goal. 2. Determine the types of learning of the goal. 3. Conduct an information-processing analysis of that goal. 4. Conduct a prerequisite analysis and determine the type of learning of the prerequisites. 5. Write learning objectives for the learning goal and each of the prerequisites. 6. Write test specifications. (p. 76)
I also found useful the authors’ inclusion of Robert Gagné’s taxonomy of learning outcomes, comprised of five “domains” “verbal information (or declarative knowledge), intellectual skills; cognitive strategies, attitudes, and psychomotor skills” (79). Again, I don’t come from an extensive education background, but I do have some training on this front, and I’m surprised (and a little annoyed) that I haven’t come across these notions (i.e. this taxonomy) before.
What I found most immediately useful and orienting in this chapter were the “four major categories of learner characteristics”—“cognitive (general and specific), physiological, affective, and social” (72). I also found interesting (if a little surprising, I suppose), is the authors’ claim that “[s]pecific prior knowledge is generally the most important single learner characteristic to consider” (72). One of the things I am interested to learn more about is the notion (mentioned only briefly by the authors, almost as an aside) that “[a]n understanding of the stages of [learners’] moral development can be quite helpful to designers, particularly as they design for attitude objectives, design instructional management strategies, or design instruction in psychosocial content areas” (68).
Amongst the most helpful (and orienting) aspect of Chapter 3 was their discussion of the “[t]hree primary models of needs assessment [that] fit different initiating conditions: Problem-Based, Innovation- Based, and Discrepancy-Based” (54). Their “[r]ecommendations for working with an expert” were interesting, to be sure, but was also a little difficult to engage with—not for any failing on the part of the authors, but simply because this part of the process seems so remote me at this point. I also found myself wondering how much of the field changes from year to year. Might this advice even be slightly outdated now?
Smith and Ragan provided a set of detailed, fairly straightforward descriptions and thoughtful considerations on these foundations, as they (confessed “pragmatists,” middle-grouders) see them. The two poles the authors present are rationalism–of which constructivism is one form, wherein “reason is the primary source of knowledge and that reality is constructed rather than discovered” (19)–and empiricism–”sometimes termed objectivism,… postulates that knowledge is acquired through experience…. [, and that] experience allows an individual to come to know a reality that is objective and singular” (22).
Smith and Ragan subcategorize Constructivism into “Individual Constructivism” (19), “Social Constructivism” (20) and “Contextualism” (20). Between rationalism-constructivism and empiricism-objectivism, the authors place their own position, “Pragmatism,” which might be considered a ‘middle ground’ between rationalism (constructivism) and empiricism…. Although pragmatists, like empiricists, believe that knowledge is acquired through experience, they believe that this knowledge is interpreted through reason and is temporary and tentative” (22).
To me, one of the more interesting (if shorter) arguments that the authors make in this chapter addresses (as they see it) the need to study theory when working in design. In part alluding to the historically fragmentary nature of the field, Smith and Ragan note that “[t]heory bases are the common ground that we share with other professionals in the field” (18).