Programmed Instruction Research Paper Starter

Programmed Instruction

(Research Starters)

The programmed instruction movement was developed by American psychologist B. F. Skinner during the 1950s. Programmed instruction, modeled after the scientific method, arose as a response to teacher shortages and to increasing student populations. It automates instruction through breaking up curriculum into small, self-contained, manageable frames that are then logically sequenced in a systematic manner and presented through technological devices. Ultimately, the goal of programmed instruction is to control learning through measuring observable outcomes and through devising precise methodologies of teaching that are guaranteed to work. Programmed instruction has been extinguished as a movement, but its influences form the foundation for much of modern education. Systematization of instruction through codified objectives, evaluation methods (especially through standardized testing), and techniques of teaching that emphasize a back to the basics, step-by-step approach are, for example, some of the ways in which programmed instruction influenced the educational field as it is understood in the present.



Educational Theory: Programmed Instruction


Programmed instruction is a pedagogical approach that views curricula as a sequence of organized frames that guide a student through the learning process. Rooted firmly in the theoretical foundations of science, programmed instruction is based on the assumption that learning occurs best when material is broken up into small, logically sequenced individual units. Another assumption of programmed instruction, one rooted not specifically in science itself, but in B. F. Skinner's interpretation of it, is that learning occurs best when learners succeed frequently. Hence, in programmed instruction courses, students are "tested" after each small part of material, called a frame, is presented; their success on these assessments is virtually guaranteed by following a classical linear model of instruction (Skinner, 1958). Developed in the 1950s, programmed instruction enjoyed less than two decades of popularity before losing favor in the field of education theory, and is now largely defunct as a pedagogical method.

The move toward programmed instruction was ignited by Sidney Pressey (1888-1979), an educational psychologist who developed the first "teaching machine," which he called a "simple apparatus which gives tests, scores, and teaches" (1926, p. 549). The field was not given shape, however, until American psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) provided a theoretical foundation. Skinner proposed his model for "teaching machines" out of a concern for increasingly large student-teacher ratios and as a solution for addressing individual differences in students at a time when it was unclear that overworked teachers were able to do so (Pocztar, 1972). Skinner wrote that, "in any other field a demand for increased production would have led at once to the invention of labor-saving capital equipment," that education was not in step with developments in automation that had taken place since the Industrial Revolution (Skinner, 1958, p. 969). An efficient and effective pedagogy was called for: one modeled on the structure of science itself.

How Programmed Instruction Works

Programmed instruction theoretically claims to be more efficient and effective than more traditional modes of pedagogy. Lessons are implemented through instructional frame sequences. A sample sequence of six frames is presented in Figure 1 below. This sequence was adapted from Skinner's example (1958) and if implemented, would be part of a spelling lesson consisting of several hundred frames. The student would walk through the sequence frame by frame (without having access to later frames, as in Figure 1 below). The example given here is called a linearly programmed sequence because each student proceeds from step one through step six in exact sequence, without deviations. In a branching program, the assessment on each frame is in the form of a multiple choice question, instead of in the form of a constructed response. Each multiple choice option sends the student to a different frame: if they are incorrect, they are told to either restart, to take some extra steps, or to repeat the previous frame and try again. If they are correct, they progress sequentially without deviations from the linear path.

Programmed instruction courses can be implemented using various technologies. One premise of programmed instruction is that it automates the presentation of curricula, increasing efficiency so that teachers have time to pay more attention to students' personal needs--hence the need for technology. Technology does not refer to specific machine-driven processes, but rather to a structure of organization that imposes order and control. For example, a programmed course can be implemented through the technology of a book, as Robert Mager illustrates in Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction (1962). During the 1950s and 1960s, when programmed instruction was enthusiastically supported, it was implemented primarily through a combination of books, simple automated machines that recorded answers, and teachers' input. Computers had not yet entered a public awareness that was still fascinated by the new invention of the television set--although the integrated circuit, the precursor to the modern computer, was invented in 1958, the same year Skinner published his Teaching Machines.

Decrease in Popularity

Support and implementation of programmed instruction courses cooled in the late 1960s due to the method's high costs, concerns about student boredom, and an increasing awareness that research was not able to conclusively prove that programmed instruction was indeed more efficient or effective than other types of instruction (Kulik, 1982; McDonald, 2005). Today, certain premises of the field have resurfaced within computer-assisted instruction, though most of the original assumptions of programmed instruction have been modified to reflect changing attitudes and research. For example, the number of steps in a programmed course has been significantly reduced, reflecting research on the effects of overprompting (Holliday, 1983). Not all learning that occurs with the assistance of a computer, however, falls in the category of programmed instruction. Many online courses, for example, allow students to take quizzes and tests and submit assignments using a computer but do not purport to "teach" material in step-by-step lessons broken up into individual, logically sequenced parts. The field of computer-assisted instruction is thus similar to programmed instruction in that it aims to automate parts of teaching so that it can educate more learners, but differs in its core assumptions and approach.

Contextual Dimensions Philosophical

Scientific undertakings aim to understand processes of nature through empirical observation and through systematic analysis of experimental results. Methodologically, science proceeds through logical, self-contained, reproducible steps as it makes observations and subsequently derives laws. It seeks to break up experience into measurable parts, to organize them in a systematic manner, and ultimately, to control and predict experience through its implementations. This approach differs greatly from other ways of imagining or understanding the world. It is generally accepted, for example, that what characterized human consciousness prior to the rise of rationalism was a "mythological" or "poetic" essence (Eliade, 1998). Many educational theorists believe, for example, that breaking down fluid, complex phenomena into small, rational parts ultimately disturbs or does violence to those phenomena and does injustice to learning (Aoki, 2004).

Programmed instruction was imagined by Skinner as the full implementation of these scientific aims and premises in the realm of education. Programmed instruction was not formulated as just another teaching methodology, pedagogical philosophy, or educational implementation. Rather, it was the very embodiment of science in all aspects of the field of education. Programmed instruction breaks up the field of education into small, self-contained, manageable parts that it then logically sequences in a systematic manner. Ultimately, the goal is to control learning through measuring observable outcomes and through devising precise methodologies of teaching that are "guaranteed" to work (Skinner, 1958)--even relationships between students and teachers are codified and explained in terms of behavioral objectives and laws of communication and learning. In mechanical ways of learning, "communication [was] conceived as the transmission of information from one place (the sender) to another place (the receiver) through a medium or channel" (Vanderstraten et al., 2006, p. 165).


Programmed instruction is thus grounded in assumptions of determinism (McDonald et al., 2005)--the view that we can predict future events (or behaviors, in the case of programmed instruction) based on current knowledge of "laws" that are "true." For example, proponents of programmed instruction posited that if students followed through such a course completely, they would be "guaranteed" to show improved scores on their evaluations. This "guarantee" stems from the conviction that programmed instruction is modeled after science, which is itself backed by truth, and that therefore, an implementation of fundamental, scientific learning "laws" in curricula would be guaranteed to produce learning. According to McDonald et al. (2005), "Programmers believed that an effective instructional product was the sum of its constituent parts, and that if all the factors were presented in the correct order, students would succeed" (p. 87). Laws of learning, according to Skinner and the proponents of programmed instruction, dictated that curricula be implemented by systematically dividing material into in small, logical, linearly-sequenced parts. McDonald et al. wrote that the assumption of determinism manifested in programmed instruction is in the form of less responsibility for students. Because steps were so small (in order for learning to be "guaranteed"), students often got bored, motivation became a problem, and less "genuine exploration" occurred in classrooms (McDonald et al., 2005, p. 89). Further, this assumption implies that aptitude and skills are irrelevant to success in school. The scientific method, as applied to education in the form of programmed instruction, theoretically works each and every time, with all students.


Programmed instruction is also grounded in the assumption of materialism (McDonald et al., 2005). Materialism is the view that only observable things can be manipulated by scientific methods. Thus, all aspects of programmed instruction are centered upon observable behavior and specific content that can be broken up into learning objectives. Education is seen as a process that produces terminal outcomes in students--defined in terms of "what will be accepted as evidence that the learner has achieved the [learning] objective" (Mager, 1962, p. 12). The implications of this assumption are that programmed instruction courses were often found to distort material in order to make it conform to a measurable format (McDonald et al, 2005). For example, history is taught as a list of important dates and people; English as grammar, syntax, and composition rules; and mathematics as a rigid step-by-step process (Calvin et al., 1969).

The theoretical underpinnings of science (and consequently, of programmed instruction) did not prove effective or practical as applied to education, and by the mid to late 1960s the movement had started to lose supporters. Many schools found that the rigid step-by-step process not only did not cater to student differences as claimed by theorists, but ignored them (see, for example, Edling et al., 1964). The attempt to break down student behaviors into observable behavior was initially theoretically promising and had much support from a world fascinated by new technologies and scientific developments. However, in practice, the creative, "mythopoetic" element of education, the process through which students explore their worlds in a non-linear, exploratory fashion seemed lost and contributed to the relatively quick demise of programmed instruction (Slattery, 2004).

Historical & Socio-Cultural Dimensions

An interest in increasing the efficiency of education arose late in the nineteenth century within the work of educational philosophers Franklin Bobbitt (1918), W. W. Charters, and David Snedden (Drost, 1967), among others. Inspired by engineer F. W. Taylor's theories on scientific management, these pedagogues' work helped establish a scientific approach to educational theory and practice geared toward increasing efficiency of learning through training learners for their "future lives in the workplace, … without any extra, useless education" (Goodson et al., 1998, p. 52). With the advent of technological discoveries...

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