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The Learning Paradigm: The Heart of Course Transformation

Michael Wallace

Instructional Designer, Center for Teaching and Learning - University of Texas at Austin Gail Grabner

Lecturer, Biochemistry - University of Texas at Austin

As we continue to learn about learning, we see paradigm shifts occurring all around us. We are in the midst of a shift from the “instructional paradigm” to the “learning paradigm.” Here we discuss the concepts underlying the two paradigms and then present an application of the shift to the “learning paradigm” – and its impact on student test performance – in a biochemistry course. These ideas and concepts can be applied across disciplines.

The Instructional Paradigm

Why does the “sage on the stage” model persist as the primary mode of instruction?  There are many reasons the instructional paradigm continues to reign for the transmission of knowledge:

  • Efficiently covers content.

  • Effectively addresses the issue of “knowledge explosion” that has occurred in many disciplines, especially STEM.

  • Seemingly maximizes the expertise of the instructor.

  • Limits the preparation regarding what happens in class to what the instructor is doing (one dimension).

  • Represents how most of the professoriate was taught.

When transmission of knowledge is the focus, students primarily acquire new knowledge during the class and engage in homework after class, often in isolation.

One of the barriers to learning from this model comes in the form of “illusion of understanding.”  Novices watch an expert solve a problem and all seems simple and straightforward until they try it out on their own. This issue has serious consequences when homework is submitted and the feedback on how they did comes back a week or two later. In the worst-case scenario, students discover they didn’t understand the previous concepts while waiting for feedback. Meanwhile, more knowledge has been transmitted and additional assignments given. Now, they are further behind and may not possess learning strategies to effectively address the gaps of understanding and rectify their compounding errors in thinking.

Why is it time for an alternative paradigm to take hold after languishing in various forms for over a century? Breakthroughs both in technology and in our understanding of how learning works, will hopefully serve as a catalyst for inducing a paradigm shift. The shift in thinking begins when what matters most is what students are able to do as a result of engaging in our course.  The focus becomes finding ways to help students move beyond content acquisition to concept application. The heart of teaching transforms into maximizing learning to train students how to start thinking like an expert in the field.

The Learning Paradigm

The learning paradigm emphasizes students taking ownership of their own learning and teachers figuring out ways to best facilitate that goal within their disciplines.  Chickering and Gamson (1987) identified seven principles for effective undergraduate education that serve as the basis for transforming courses around this paradigm. The essential elements include active and collaborative learning, prompt feedback, practice, high expectations, student-faculty contact, and diverse opportunities to learn. John Hattie’s research (1999) further clarifies specific approaches (e.g. formative feedback, space and massed practice, teaching problem solving, cooperative learning) that highly impact learning. Some questions to consider:

  • What content should students acquire before class for them to be successful during class?

  • How will students be held accountable for completing the work before class?

  • Where can students pose questions and receive assistance outside of class?

  • What kinds of learning activities will provide an appropriate level of challenge in applying the content from the pre-class assignment?

  • How can students effectively collaborate during and after class?

  • How can feedback be incorporated, so students can check their own understanding?

  • What does practice look like outside of class?

  • What tools will help students reflect on the effectiveness of their learning and the strategies they are learning?

The Learning Paradigm Applied in the Flipped Classroom

There are a myriad of methods that evoke the essential elements of the learning paradigm (e.g. Team-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Guided Inquiry, Case Studies).  The one garnering some attention as of late is the Flipped Classroom. What attracted us to this approach is how it leverages many of these impactful strategies as well technology tools that are now inexpensive and pervasive.

Figure 1: Flipping the Class (Center for Teaching and Learning, The University of Texas at Austin).

Early in Gail’s teaching career, she noticed students in her lecture classes struggled to move from concept acquisition to application whereas students tended to achieve these “Aha!” moments in her lab courses. She began testing out teaching strategies that would provide students with “Aha!” moments in her large enrollment Biochemistry courses [~300 students/class]. Over time, she learned about the flipped classroom and decided to go all in.  Let’s explore what an effective flipped classroom looks like by examining what Gail has been able to accomplish with her large-lecture Biochemistry course.

A flipped classroom involves many of the essential elements of the Learning Paradigm. Typically before class, students acquire content via online learning modules within a Learning Management System (LMS). These modules include mini-lectures created and video recorded by Gail to cover content both needed by students for the next class and to address her learning outcomes. Each module contains a quiz to check students’ understanding. is a question forum allowing students to pose questions throughout the learning process. The app allows students, TAs, and the instructor to answer questions. Creating the videos is the most time consuming investment; the payoff is once they are completed they can be reused in future semesters.

During class, students are presented with a series of increasingly challenging questions. The students submit their answers using a classroom response system and are encouraged to discuss and explain their answers with other students around them, especially when the results fail to exceed a 70% correct threshold. Undergraduate Teaching Assistants assist Gail to facilitate the problem-solving sessions by engaging students in thinking through the problem but not giving answers. Mini-lectures are used to address gaps in understanding or questions that arise.

After class, students are given further opportunities to engage with the material through Peer-Led Undergraduate Studies (PLUS); a voluntary, instructor-sponsored study session led by students currently enrolled in the class. During PLUS, students collaboratively tackle additional problems and engage in further discussion around essential course concepts. Students gain further practice by completing assigned homework problems though Sapling Learning. The final element is a survey that students complete to help Gail further understand where students are struggling as well as prompting them to reflect upon their learning.

What has been the impact of “flipping” on student learning? The average test score on the first exam increased 5.5 points. What is most telling is the shift in the percentage of students earning A’s or B’s: Pre-flip class in Fall 2012 31% compared to 42% of the students in the flipped class in Fall 2013. This trend held for overall grades where 58% of the students earned A’s or B’s in Fall 2012 compared to 67% of the students in Fall 2013.

When done well, a Flipped Classroom offers flexibility in what happens during class, maximizes the expertise of the instructor, and enhances the learning of students. While it does not fit every situation, it does represent an entry-level option for adopting the learning-paradigm and can be used in practically any discipline not simply STEM fields. When initially making the shift from the “instructional” paradigm to the “learning paradigm,” you can test drive a few approaches rather than going all in. For example, try any of the above strategies (e.g., video-taping lectures to pre-view before class and/or integrate pre-class quizzes) in one class unit and then modify your approach and integrate across the rest of the course as it makes sense.

References & Resources

Hattie, J. A. (1999). Influences on student learning (Inaugural professorial address, University of Auckland, New Zealand). Retrieved April 22. 2015 from

Wallace, M. L, Walker, J. D., Braseby, A.M. & Sweet, M. S. (2014). “Now, what happens during class?” Using team-based learning to optimize the role of expertise within the flipped classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 253-273.

This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference – Austin.

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