Re: Simple vs. Complex Learning Outcomes

A response to Chapter 6, “Psychological Foundations of Instructional Design,” in Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology

Question

Select two instructional goals that represent simple versus complex learning outcomes. How would the learning theories discussed in this chapter be employed to develop instruction to teach the goals you have selected?  How would the instruction differ in each case?  Would one or another theory be more applicable to one goal versus the other?  Why?

Answer

When designing instruction for students, it is important to begin with the end in mind. Setting instructional goals points to the path that the learners and teachers should follow. Examining those goals provides a window into the learning processes and theories that instructional designers are utilizing to elicit learning outcomes. In fact, the theories and the learning processes are the path to get learners to that end point. In the following paragraphs, two instructional goals for dental hygiene education, one simple and one complex, will be examined and the underlying principles of instruction and learning will be highlighted.

The Simple Instructional Goal: By the end of the first month of school, first-year dental hygiene students can label intraoral landmarks on a diagram and properly describe the normal anatomy found there.

One of the underlying principles at work in this simple instructional goal is the Behavioral Learning Theory, where knowledge exists outside of the learner and must be pursued (Driscoll, 2017, pp. 53-54). In this case the student must memorize a discrete set of intraoral landmarks and their location in the mouth along with the standard descriptors of healthy, normal anatomy. The memorization is a criterion-reference activity, a matter of learning a defined set of terms and relating that information to a fixed standard (the intraoral cavity), where multiple choice and fill in the blank quizzes test recall and students’ answered are compared to the specified standard (Reiser, 2017, p. 14). Instructors, as the experts assign readings with diagrams, then give lectures with slides, then give quizzes to test learning, and finally allow students’ the opportunity to practice in the pre-clinical setting, providing feedback (formative evaluation) as necessary. Students’ correct answers are reinforced by the stimuli of high scores on quizzes and positive verbal feedback in pre-clinical setting. Students repeat the same identification/labeling exercises, either in written or verbal form, multiple times, until it they are well versed in this basic, yet critical skill for the profession of dental hygiene (Driscoll, 2017, p. 54).

The influence of the Cognitive Information Processing Theory on this instructional goal is readily apparent, as well. Here the information exists outside of the learner and is the stimulus, or input, that triggers internal processing required for learning to occur (Driscoll, 2017, p. 54). The activities first appeal to the learner through sensory memory, and as the input progresses (visually) from diagrams to slides to live patients. Then the information moves to the short-term memory and finally to the long-term memory (p. 54). As an aside, this is where the Schema Theory is also applied in that schemas develop as learners increase in familiarity from repeated visual exposures to the material until what was foreign becomes commonplace. Schemas are also used as learners move from learning vocabulary to classifying tissues (e.g. soft vs. hard tissues, keratinized vs. non-keratinized) and categorizing anatomical structures in terms of their purposes (e.g. the different salivary glands, the assorted tissues that compose the periodontium, and the various types of papillae on the tongue) (p. 55). Returning to Cognitivism, the dental hygiene students receive feedback at multiple intervals during the learning process to allow them to ascertain the correctness of their answers and to modify their performance if necessary (p. 54). Finally, information processing is facilitated for learners due to practice in a variety of settings (p.54).

The Complex Instructional Goal: By the end of the first semester, first-year dental hygiene students will use information gathered in the initial oral exam and medical history to develop a dental hygiene treatment plan for a patient requiring quadrant scaling and root planning.

Once again, the instructional goal is sustained by practices associated with Cognitive theory. This goal draws on all previously learned information where leaners must retrieve encoded knowledge about health and disease and then use critical thinking skills to develop a plan and schedule appropriate treatment (Driscoll, 2017, p. 54). The clinical environment requires the highest level of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, which are higher order cognitive skills (pp. 57, 62).

In addition, Constructivist influences are woven into this learning process in that these are live patients, people with real health concerns and dental disease; this is “authentic performance in a realistic setting” (Driscoll, 2017, p. 63). Students are practicing the profession of dental hygiene, as novices under the “cognitive apprenticeship” of their professional dental hygienist instructors (pp. 62, 73). In the clinical environment, instructors move from their classroom position of “sage on the stage” to a more collaborative relationship of “guide on the side” (pp. 57, 61). This shift also demonstrates Situated Learning Theory where the dental hygiene student moves to the place of performing the same tasks and skills that the experts in the subject matter do, where learners “participate in the practices of the community” (p. 55). Creation of a treatment plan for patients is authentic to the discipline of dental hygiene and allows learners to “reflect on what and how they are learning,” another aspect of constructivism (pp. 57, 63). Assessment of the instructional goal is indeed complex because patient care, in a clinical setting, is unlikely to reveal “uniform level of accomplishment among learners.” The subject of learners’ study and work is the patient, who cannot be standardized. This means, for a learner, every patient (learning experience) is different due to variances in terms of level of difficulty (pertaining to deposit removal), degree of disease, and complication of management (pain, physical limitations, psychosocial factors). For the same reason, it is impossible to standardize the learning experience in the clinical setting from one student to another (p. 57). Obstacles such as these are considered in the planning of instruction, and the solution to this problem is the multiplicity of learning experiences.


Driscoll, M. P. (2017). Psychological foundations of instructional design. In Reiser & Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (pp.52-60). New York, NY: Pearson.

Reiser, R. A.  (2017). A history of instructional design and technology. In Reiser & Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (pp.8-22). New York, NY: Pearson.

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