Designing Learning for Homo Prospectus

Why do our learning outcomes fail to inspire students?

Why do students not immediately connect with the subjects that we know to be valuable?

What can we do to change this?

When faculty and I have worked with design learning materials, they are often good at writing outcomes based on what a person is expected to learn. They ask, what wisdom will a person gain from the course? They can clearly define knowledge content and usually provide evidence of that. Unfortunately, these outcomes fail to inspire many students. Wisdom and learning have intrinsic value, but that value is often only apparent to people who have already gained and applied the wisdom. We are wrong if we think this value is enough to entice most students to learn it.

Understanding “homo prospectus”

Martin Seligmann, past president of the American Psychological Association, and several colleagues wrote about their understanding of humanity’s success based not on pure wisdom (homo sapiens) but on our ability to hope, plan, and act towards a future. They labeled humans as “homo prospectus”. Suggesting, as humans, we invest energy in activities based on their perceived likelihood to benefit us. If we are more confident in the payoff, we are more likely to invest time. We act towards goals. We live toward the futures we perceive.

Connecting hopes and dreams to learning outcomes

In course design, we often assume that participants will naturally connect the wisdom in the outcomes, or even the skills that they might learn, with tangible benefits for them in the future. There are many reasons why faculty don’t always make these connections for students.

It may be that:

  • they trust that the power of the degree or qualification will be enough;
  • they hope that intrinsic motivation will be enough to fuel completion; or
  • sometimes, if we are honest, the focus is primarily on getting the best content into a course rather than the outcomes.

These factors might be enough for some exceptional participants but only for some.

One thing we learn from MOOCs, especially paid courses, is the need to market the real-world benefit of the skills learned and the credentials attained. At Construct, we ask:

  • What are the hopes of the participants who may be joining this course?
  • What do these participants want to achieve?
  • How will this piece of learning advance a person’s career?
  • What life change are we expecting for participants?

The tangible hope is a powerful motivator, a powerful hook to pull people into courses. We reaffirm these hopes throughout a learning course and design them into each element to keep people moving forward. Content builds knowledge, assessment forms confidence in the use and experience of skills, and social learning allows exploring and seeing others’ experiences and achievement of hope.

A real-world application

In a counseling skills course, the stated outcome might be for students to learn active listening. However, we know that what a student is learning to do might be changing lives through conversation and/or improving the quality of personal relationships through better communication.

When we design the program or course, we give students opportunities;

  • to reflect on their current experience and the change they want to achieve;
  • to learn about the skills that might help make a change; and
  • to experiment with applying these skills in conversation.

We can then build opportunities to share new experiences and lessons with others. We can build tangible hope by hooking participants into the course, giving them opportunities to experience that hope as part of the course, and opportunities to share achievements along the way.

All students are motivated by hopes and dreams. All students are prospectors. All students benefit from expecting and then experiencing the tangible benefits of the courses they invest their time and money into. All good prospectors take their energy and resources elsewhere when they do not find the treasure they are looking for.

Let us take the time to think beyond the wisdom outcomes of the courses we create and communicate the life impact. Let us make space for experiencing that impact within the course. Let us hardcode opportunities for concrete change and celebration into the courses we build so that we know that it isn’t a byproduct of good instruction but the core of the learning.

Richard Mee

Richard Mee

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