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Teaching Forum - Shifting course activities:

A Journal of the the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Sunday October 26, 2008 Edition

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Shifting course activities:
Reflections on the use of learning plans

By Kat Lui


Every attempt to teach or learn occurs in the context of what the learner already knows. This paper investigates the use of learning plans (constructed through instructor and student collaboration) as a means to identify previous knowledge and to motivate students to reflect on their own learning process.  Results suggest that learning plans facilitate learning by focusing students on the goals of the course. At the end of the semester, students evaluated the use of learning plans. Learning plans were not only helpful to their learning process but resulted in shifting of course activities based upon student input.

Key Words:  Learning plans, learning goals.

Why use a Learning Plan?

One important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. "Ascertain this and teach accordingly" (Ausubel, 1968 as cited in Cerbin, 2000). Cerbin (2004) suggests that students create knowledge by using what they already know to make sense of new information. Learning plans are one way of discovering what the student already knows and what they hope to acquire from a college course.

Learning plans serve as an agreement between the learner and the instructor in which students outline their individual learning objectives, strengths they bring to the course, competencies they wish to develop, and what they are willing to do in pursuit of their objectives. These plans are highly self-directed; they act as a mechanism for learners to build on past experience and determine needs as they carry out learning activities. Knowles (1986) was a strong advocate for the use of learning contracts. However a contract often implies a legal and bureaucratic focus. The term learning plan is more accurate in describing the outcome of a process of negotiation (Williams & Williams, 1999). Learning plans can also be used to negotiate for grades. Typically, learning that is self-directed and based on individually developed objectives leads to a deeper, more permanent understanding (Knowles, 1986).

The structure imposed on this learning experience included predetermined course objectives and assignments. However students fashioned their own version of objectives. Boyer (2003) outlines key steps to the learning plan process: diagnose learning needs, specify learning objectives & evidence of accomplishments, specify evaluation methods, review learning plan, carry out plan, and lastly evaluate overall learning.

Learning plans are a vehicle for making the planning of learning experiences a mutual undertaking between learner and teacher (Knowles, 1986).  Typically the teacher is the facilitator and learners assume personal responsibility for their learning experience. Lemieux (2001) posits that when plans are responsibly used, they motivate learners to achieve certain outcomes and provide structure to the learning experience, while remaining flexible enough to respond to the unique demands of individual learners.

The purpose of this paper is to describe how learning plans were used in the context of an overall teaching approach in an undergraduate level course.

Course Context

Training Systems in Business & Industry is an elective course for several majors at the University of Wisconsin-Stout: Hospitality and Tourism, Service Management, General Business Administration, Industrial Management, Information Technology Management, and Graphic Communication Management. Consequently students from a variety of majors take this junior level course. The typical student profile is male, 22 -28 years of age.

Predetermined course objectives for Training Systems in Business & Industry are as follows:

·        Define and discuss the purpose and function of training/HRD in performance improvement.

·        Define and discuss the primary job roles found in training/HRD.

·        Examine the various psychological and learning theories of training/HRD.

·        Define and discuss the role of motivation in performance improvement.

·        Examine and understand the importance of needs assessment and front-end analysis.

·        Develop specific performance-based learning objectives.          

·        Define and discuss alternatives to training.

·        Identify strategies/systems to facilitate training delivery.

·        Develop and acquire skills in training/HRD: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation systems through hands-on experience.

·        Define and discuss the application of measurement, assessment, and evaluation to training/HRD programs.

·        Define and discuss the importance of training/HRD budgets with respect to cost vs. benefit.

·        Describe and discuss emerging trends in the training/HRD profession.

Over 30 students were enrolled in two course sections in the fall 2004 semester. Learning plans were required in an effort to have learners identify their objectives, strengths, and competencies relative to this course. Student input, collected at the end of Fall 2004 term, describing the extent to which learning plans facilitated learning suggest that learners found these plans helpful to their learning process.

Development of process

During the 2004 – 2005 academic year I was awarded a WI Teaching Fellows grant in order to study an activity focused on student learning. My investigation into the use of learning plans with undergraduate students seemed an appropriate quest. After three years of using learning plans, I wanted to focus more sharply on how these plans facilitated student learning.

Self-directed learning is a theoretical underpinning of learning plans. Key to this strategy is creating a climate that encouraged students to take responsibility for their own learning. Part of this process requires students to uncover what knowledge they have regarding the intellectual goals of this course. The current document, based upon Knowles (1986) framework, represents the combined efforts of many students from past semesters.

Learning Plan Document:

  1. List and describe 7 of your learning objectives for this course

  2. List and describe your strengths as they pertain to the goals of this course

  3. List and describe competencies you wish to develop

  4. All courses have a level of importance to each of us. Using a scale of 1-5 with 1 signifying that this course is highly important, please rate the importance of this course to you.

  5. What is the grade you seek?

  6. What will you do to work towards this grade?

I used an abbreviated form of Boyer's (2003) learning plan process which included the following 4 steps:

            Step 1: The first 2 weeks of class learners engage in discovery of what a learning plan is and how it can be used to plan their semester. They develop an individualized plan using the above referenced document.

            Step 2: I meet with each student to review their plan and make recommendations. For example, one of Eric's learning objectives was "to walk away from this class with an understanding of ideas and situations that I can easily apply to my future employment…" The lack of specificity provided an opportunity to discuss the course objectives in more detail inviting Eric to revise his plan.

            Step 3: Mid-Semester 1:1 coaching. I meet again with each student to discuss their progress. Active involvement between instructor and learner is critical.

            Step 4: End of semester – student input via reflective writing in response to series of questions.

Key Reflections

At the end of the term students were given a survey which asked them to review their learning plans. Following are the three prevalent reflections.

Reflection #1: Through reflective writing students describe significant learning that occurred for them at the culmination of the semester.

Reflection #2: Students are able to identify what is important to them in the course.

Reflection #3: Students use mid-semester coaching in order to reflect on their plans, asking questions and seeking information to modify their plans. Course activities shift.

Summary of reflections:

When asked to describe how their learning plan facilitated learning learners provided detailed comments that their learning plans were instrumental. Comments such as; "…it's relatively clear that it played a crucial role in my learning process." "…knowing there were things that I really wanted to learn helped me pay greater attention in class." "…it helped me stay on track and made me think what I wanted to get out of the class." Of those who responded that their learning plan did not facilitate learning or that they felt unsure, many stated that they did not look at their learning plans unless directed to do so. Some reported that, as an elective course, they felt little investment in learning course content. It is not surprising that students taking this course merely to fulfill a requirement might be less engaged by the learning plan. However, it is possible that there were long-term positive effects of being required to reflect on one's own learning process. The process of reflection required in the construction of a learning plan is intrinsically useful. Its value is not tied to specific course content.

Through completion of a learning plan within the first 2 weeks of the semester, students were not only familiar with the intellectual goals of the course but were able to plot out their personal objectives. "The learning plan forces you to look at what is ahead (student, 2004)." Learners found their unique place in the content through consideration of predetermined course objectives and development of their personal learning objectives. Analysis of the learning plans collected at the 2-week point revealed that all students had at least an adequate understanding of these issues.

Mid-semester coaching involved a one on one meeting with each student. We reviewed their learning plan and discussed what was working for them and what they needed to change. Some students took this opportunity to revise their plans, discarding objectives that no longer held meaning and developing others that were pertinent to their interests. An unexpected benefit of this mid-semester check in was that students did a grade check to determine if they were on target with what they hoped initially. If their current performance fell short of their initial estimate, we talked about strategies to assist with what they initially set out to accomplish. Perhaps of equal importance, shifts happen when learners request additional information that enhances their understanding of the training and development profession. We agree to have one week devoted to guest speakers. Students engage in a process of researching speakers, asking questions in advance of class, and setting up opportunities for focused dialogue.


Shifting course activities based upon student input was liberating for all of us. This process of reflection has changed my teaching for the better. In the end, reflection seems critical to student learning. As Moon (1999) posits, reflection can be generated by asking the kinds of questions that do not have clear-cut answers. After presenting this project at a national conference (Lui, 2004), participants suggested rewording the end-of-the-semester reflection questions so they are not value laden. The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) goes beyond facilitating student learning and reading the pedagogical literature. It involves in depth reflection on teaching and learning as well as the public sharing of the work (McKinney, 2003). I have appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my use of learning plans.

References and Resources

Bass, R. (1999). The scholarship of teaching: What's the problem? Inventio.  

Retrieved 7/8/2004


Boyer, N. (2003). The learning contract process: Scaffolds for building social,

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students' expectations: Theory-based considerations. The International Journal of

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Cerbin, W. (2000). Investigating student learning in a problem-based psychology course. In

P. Hutchins (Ed.), Opening lines: Approaches to the scholarship of teaching and learning (pp.

11-21). CA: Carnegie Publications.

Cerbin, W. (2002). A thumbnail sketch of teaching for deeper understanding. Paper presented at

Faculty College. UW-Richland. June, 2002.

Garrison, D.R. (1997). Self-directed learning: Toward a comprehensive model. Adult

Education Quarterly, 48(1), 18-33.

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Knowles, M. (1986). Using learning contracts: Practical approaches to individualized and structured

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Lemieux, C. (2001). Learning contracts in the classroom: Tools for empowerment

and accountability. Social Work Education. 20(2). 263-267.

Lui, K. (2004) Mixing Fielding approaches with learning in traditional higher education:

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Institute Summer Session, July 14, 2004. Alexandria, VA.

McKinney, K. (2003). Applying the scholarship of teaching and learning: How can

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Moon, J. (1999). Reflection in learning and professional development. London.  Kogan Page.

Williams, A., Williams, P. (1999). The effects of the use of learning contracts on

student performance in technology teacher training. Research in Science

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CopyrightUW System

Kat Lui is an Associate Professor in the College of Technology, Engineering, & Management. She is currently teaching Training Systems in Business & Industry and Management & Coordination of Training & Development to undergraduate and graduate students. She thanks Lori Carrell and anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.