“Create a culture in which clearly specified learning outcomes and assessments engage students as responsible partners in their learning and in which the College’s learning leaders can effectively create the best conditions for learning.”


An Essay by Philip Bishop, Chris Klinger, and Patrick Nellis



       Valencia's strategic goal of Learning by Design means we improve learning by applying our understanding of the ways that people learn best in college. Learning by design requires that we shape Valencia's learning environment by conscious and purposeful intention, not by accident or habit. It means asking what works, and then doing what works.

       In re-shaping learning at Valencia, we need to continue studying the best research on and consider the best practices of learning in college--what we call the "scholarship of teaching and learning." We also need to study our own practice at Valencia to learn what we're doing well and where we need to do better.

       Building on careful study, our design should also reflect sound design principles that: 1) are consistent with the values of our learning-centered initiative; 2) generate a widely useful template or model for effective design; and 3) incorporate honest and public assessment of the design's effectiveness.

       The re-shaping of learning at Valencia must always proceed with a healthy respect for traditional ways of teaching and learning. Colleges have long been deeply traditional places and that's likely to continue. However, our traditions of college teaching and learning traditions should be evaluated with the same rigor that we evaluate long-standing ideas in our disciplines--by testing them against new knowledge and theory. In learning by design, that rigor is provided by the two-part test of the learning college: What do students learn? How do we know they've learned?

       Let's look at the traditional ways we've defined learning in college:

  • Taking a course as learning.
  • Earning degrees as learning.
  • Being-in-college as learning.

To learn by design, we would need to shape these distinct experiences for students so that, for each, we can answer the key questions--What do students learn? How do we know they've learned?--confidently, publicly, and in detail. We'll know what a student has learned and how well she's learned it, if she takes this course, if she earns by this degree, and if she spends this time at Valencia. But the learning college isn't only about students. It assumes that a college is a learning place for those who work there. So we should design a non-traditional kind of learning in addition to the three named above. That is:

  • Working-in-college as learning.

Let's take these each as a distinct design problem.

1. Course-taking by design

To shape course-taking by design--that is, by conscious intention based on scholarship and honest assessment--here's what we might do.

       A) Use a course template. Apply a flexible model or template of course design so that each Valencia course develops students' mastery of life-essential competencies (Think, Value, Communicate, and Act) and instills the disciplinary skills and understanding essential to their future success.

B) Define outcomes and standards. Define learning outcomes and standards of achievement for each Valencia course, and commit to assessing those outcomes for every student.

C) Employ learning-centered strategies. In every course design, provide for the most effective learning-centered pedagogy, as informed by studied choice of best practices (i.e., the scholarship of teaching and learning).

D) Assess. Employ assessments in every course that gauge students' increasing mastery of life-essential competencies and their enhanced command of disciplinary skills and knowledge. Assess our course designs and revise them based on the results.

E) Show and tell. Publish our course designs, their implementation, and our assessments of their effectiveness. By making our work public, we make our students and ourselves accountable for the results.

2. Degree-earning by design

To shape the entire degree-earning experience by design, here's what we might do.

       A) Align course outcomes and standards.  To begin with, course outcomes and standards of achievement need to be aligned and coordinated across the three broad levels of college-preparatory, 1000-level, and 2000-level. As a student reaches each level of course work, we should be sure that he has demonstrated the degree of mastery required for success at that level. Then, outcomes and standards should be aligned along course sequences and programs. In foreign languages, for example, the student's increasing mastery should be demonstrated and assessed along a graduated set of outcomes. Likewise in other cumulative programs, such as mathematics, English composition, or allied health.

       B) Integrate LifeMap. Integrate Valencia's development advising model so that course-taking enhances students' longer-range planning for academic, career, and lifelong success.

       C) Assess students' cumulative mastery of core competencies. Employ assessments that document and gauge students' demonstrated mastery of life-essential competencies (TVCA) as they make progress toward a degree. One such assessment would be a portfolio of student work assessed by faculty and other professionals that documents growing competency. Another would be an alternative transcript detailing the outcomes a student has mastered rather than just the courses she has taken. Review and revise our degree experiences based on honest assessment.

       D) Show and tell. Publish our designs for the degree experience, their implementation, and our assessments of their effectiveness. Publish our work and our students' work, and make ourselves accountable for the quality of both.

3. Being-in-college by design

Beyond our designs for taking courses and earning a degree as learning, we might also consider shaping the experience of being at Valencia.

A) Explicitly define a Valencia culture. We've already declared that Valencia is a learning-centered college. We could explicitly define and publicly commit to other principles and values that shape our interactions with students and each other. Should we strive to be collaborative? Respectful of the diversity among people and cultures? Guided by scholarship and reasoned inquiry? Committed to assessment? And how do we hold ourselves and our students to such a commitment?

       B) Integrate LifeMap. Integrate Valencia's development advising model so that its principles shape students' whole college experience.

C) Design co-curricular learning. Design students' co-curricular experiences so that they reinforce, and are reinforced by, the outcomes of course-taking and degree-earning. Connect co-curricular learning (for example, student clubs and publications, student government, student creative productions, and other non-course activity) directly to classroom and degree learning. Define outcomes and standards of achievement for being in college.

D) Assess students' engagement in the Valencia experience. Employ assessments of students' engagement that provide ongoing feedback to the college and to students that will enhance learning. Review and revise our design based on assessment.

E) Show and tell. Publish our designs for being-in-college and our assessment of students' engagement and learning across the whole experience.

4. Working in college by design

What would it look like if we shaped our work so that we learned while we worked--by design?

       A) Define the competencies our best work requires. Define the essential professional competencies required for us to do our work best.

B) Design our work. Design everything from academic administration to groundskeeping so that each of us grows in our mastery of life-essential skills and in the professional competencies essential to Valencia's success.

       C) Work learning-centered. Apply the principles and strategies of Valencia's learning-centered culture--learning first, collaboration, scholarship, and assessment--to our work in every department.

       D) Assess. Assess our developing mastery of life-essential and professional competencies in ways that enhance our learning and our effectiveness with students.

       E) Show and tell. Publish our design for work-based learning in ways that demonstrate our commitment and accountability.

Learning by design: Five principles

As we re-design our work with students and each other, we might ask five questions that could check the quality of our design work.

1) How does this learning experience (course, degree, being in college, or working in college) reflect good research and best practice, as reflected by the scholarship of teaching and learning and by our own considered experience?

2) How does this learning experience promote the learners' achievement of specific learning outcomes and mastery of life-essential competencies (TVCA)?

3) How does it employ the learning-centered strategies most likely to achieve active and engaged learning?

4) How does it assess the learning experience with feedback from and to the learners in ways that improve their learning?

5) How does it make public the design, implementation, and results of learning in ways that make the teacher-leaders and learner-participants accountable for outcomes?

In fact, these questions are really design principles in disguise--principles consistent with the learning-centered initiative that present some real challenges to our traditional practice. They would make our work, especially for classroom teachers, more public than we're used to. They would require us to be more explicit about the standards we use and more responsible for the results we achieve. They would make us work together more closely and agree more widely than has been our custom. But if we designed learning along these principles, we could say with, greater confidence than ever before, exactly what our students are learning and how we know it.