3 Magic Wands in Course Development: Guskey’s Model

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In any course design, one question to ask is: why do people take courses? There are as many reasons as there are courses. Some common ones are:

  • to get an A,
  • to learn something new,
  • to achieve professional accreditation,
  • to boost a resume or job prospects,
  • because ‘I’ve been told to by my boss/parents’,
  • or even for fun.

All of these reasons boil down to one large outcome for a course: to ensure that learners are transformed in some way. How do we measure transformation? (How do we measure anything?) By evaluating a set of data. This question leads to my first wand in course development!

Wand 1: The Guskey Model in Evaluating Impact.

In his article, Guskey explains the use of data in the evaluation of professional learning. According to Guskey, there are 5 levels of data gathering in professional learning:

Level 1: Participants’ reactions

Level 2: Participants’ learning

Level 3: Organisational support and change

Level 4: Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills

Level 5: Student learning outcomes

The levels of data gathering above are hierarchically arranged (from simple to more complex). However, in planning and designing a course, the trick is to start backwards. I think of the inverted process as the light from a lighthouse: it’s a guide that widens in scope as it progresses.

To unpack this metaphor, let’s begin with Level 5. This is the section of light which is closest to the lighthouse. It’s concentrated and focused. In the Guskey model, level 5 is where effective professional learning planning begins: with clear specifications of the student learning outcomes to be achieved and the sources of data that best reflect those outcomes.

Level 5: Student learning outcomes

In any course design initiatives at OpenLearning, our learning designers work closely with subject-matter experts to create courses. They usually need to be clear of at least 3 things before designing a course:

  • Who are the learners?
  • Why would they choose this course?
  • What will they get out of this course?

In an article on setting learning outcomes or goals to be achieved in a course, psychologist Ludy Benjamin paints an analogy of the teaching-learning process where educators, or course creators, are selling a product (the course) and the immediate consumers are the students. Hence, the product should consider the motivation and expectation of the consumers with regard to the products sold. What Benjamin is stressing is the importance of integrating educators’ and students’ goals in a course by involving students in the process of setting goals—this leads learners to take higher responsibility of their learning.

However, there are times when course planning takes place way before educators and course creators meet with the learners. In cases like these, there are still several ways to link what educators and course creators have prepared with individual learners’ goals. For example, in Sunway’s ARVR course, learners are asked to choose how would they like to change the world within the specific topics that will be explored in the course. Throughout the course, learners work to achieve their desired outcomes. In IMPACT’s Corporate Training course, learners were directly asked what they wanted to learn in the course and how it would be useful to them.

Both methods will allow educators and course creators to have the initial data required to measure their learners’ transformation.

Level 4: Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills

Returning to the lighthouse metaphor, the scope of planning expands in Level 4 to include the learner. Learners need to be given the opportunity and guided to ‘do’ something so that they can showcase their capability in the particular topic or skills. So, at this point, course creators should start thinking about what learners should do to successfully master the new knowledge and skills.

The best learning activities are the ones that encourage learners to create or construct something new based on what they have learnt. They should also be encouraged to contribute to discussions, share ideas, and even facilitate the course for other learners.

These methods are not new as discussions, sharing of ideas and application of new knowledge is the crux of every learning that happens anywhere, be it face-to-face or online. However, what was missing or very difficult to capture was the ability to showcase these behaviours. According to Guskey, successful indicators of learning should be outlined and mapped to the outcomes of the course before learning activities begin. For example, a course on personal finance can be planned as below:

Level 3: Organisational support and change

At this level of course planning, I usually widen my scope to weigh up the support from course creators or online facilitators, as well as the online platform’s ability to support the pedagogical methods used. For example:

Imagine you’re taking an Instructional Technology course. You and the other students are divided into groups. Each group is required to derive issues from their current workplace or teaching settings and then find a technology-integrated method to solve the issue. All of the issues and solutions are compiled to create an e-book. All of the groups are required to show evidence of each team member’s contribution in analysing the issue and discussing different ideas.

Sounds great, but is the activity actually possible?

Well, firstly, the course creator needs a collaborative tool that will enable everyone in the course to continuously contribute towards the creation of the e-book throughout the duration of the course. Even then, finding the right tool is the easy part—in reality, making online collaboration work with any tool is not an easy feat.

For one, there is engagement. How would the course creators get the learners to start talking about issues that they’re facing? How would they motivate learners to continuously work on the issues? How would a course creator encourage a supportive and non-judgmental learning community?

Despite these challenges, I still believe that an active and positive online community can be achieved as long as course creators stick to a few good practices:

  1. Providing an engaging, fun ice-breaking activity
  2. Ensuring facilitators’ active engagement in the first few weeks of the course
  3. Getting the students to do socially constructive activities throughout the course
  4. Enabling students to take the lead in their learning process
  5. Celebrating success and providing encouragement

Level 2: Participants’ Learning

Level 2 focuses on measuring new knowledge and skills. It is important to note that assessment isn’t only restricted to exams or end-of-the-course quizzes. For example, this course on coffee-making makes personal reflection a part of the course’s learning activities.

Throughout the course, learners are encouraged to reflect out loud in a blog or on social media to get feedback and ‘likes’ (could ‘likes’ be another form of motivation? Find out more about motivation in my next article 😉) from their circle of friends/acquaintances. By reflecting, learners are not only able to process the new information and synthesize the knowledge gained, a form of self-evaluation also happens unintentionally.

A lot of courses also provide opportunities for learners to simulate their new knowledge in a real-world environment. One such course is the AWS course on Cloud Computing. In this course, learners are given free AWS Educate credits to complete four projects in an actual cloud environment. This way, students are also able to demonstrate and showcase their capabilities.

As a course creator, having the pre- and post-information documented will also help them in analyzing the course for future improvements. In the ‘Writing with Impact’ course, learners were asked to perform a writing activity at the beginning of the course and then rewrite the same passage at the end of the course. This way, course creators/facilitators will have the evidence to evaluate the use of new knowledge and skills before and after completing the courses.

Level 1: Participants’ Reaction

At this final level, course creators are encouraged to take a step back and reflect on questions such as, ‘will learners enjoy doing the activities?’, ‘will they be spending their time to attempt the activities?’, and ‘will the content make sense to them?’.

At OpenLearning, learning designers team up with a buddy learning designer to look through the course and answer these questions. We then run a user-acceptance-test (UAT) for every course before it is launched. During the UAT, a fellow learner is given access to the course and is required to complete all the activities and record any difficulties faced as well as the time taken to complete the course.

And that’s it! My first wand in Learning Design: the Guskey model.

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the 5 levels of evaluation above are usually conducted after a course or a professional learning programme is completed to evaluate the impact of the learning session. However, at OpenLearning, we use this method during the planning or designing online courses to achieve the same purpose: creating an impactful online course.

Stay tuned for my next article, where I will dive deeper into my choice of Learning Design tools with Magic Wand #2: The ADDIE Model. Let me know if you found this useful in the comments section below!

This is Part 1 of a three-part series by OpenLearning’s Head of Learning Services, Marsyitah Ismail. Let us know what some of your own indispensable classroom tools are in the comments section below — and stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!


Guskey, T.R. (2016, Feb). Professional Learning – Gauge Impact with 5 Levels of Data. Retrieved from Learning Forward: http://www.learning.forward.org

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