Whatever Happened to Programmed Learning?

As the above photos suggest, “programmed learning” (or “programmed instruction”) made a huge splash in media during the 1950s and 1960s.* It was an innovation that grabbed policymakers and tech-driven school reformers. Yet by the 1970s, it had largely disappeared from the rhetoric of school reformers. Then in the 1990s with the installation of computer labs and widespread student access to these devices, policymakers and tech-enthused school reformers resurrected “programmed learning.” With increased availability of desktop and laptop computers in schools, much drill-and-practice software used in schools leaned heavily on programmed learning techniques. Often called “computer-assisted instruction,” programmed learning became front-and-center. Although programmed learning goes by different names, the theories that drove it decades earlier remain alive and well in the software that many schools and individual teachers use for lessons. Here, then, is a curricular and instructional innovation that has zig-zagged through schools for over 70 years.

What was (and is) “programmed learning?”

Programmed learning materials are usually pieces of software aimed at instructing students to digest certain content and skills. In many instances, prior to using the software, students are given a pre-test to determine how much they already know about, say, the American Revolution; after completing the pre-test, students work their way through the programmed learning software on the same topic. Drawn from textbooks or other source adapted to computers, the learning program presents new content and skills in a logical, step-by-step sequence. The learning program is broken down into slivers of knowledge or steps. After users complete each step, they are given questions to test their comprehension. After entering answers, students are then immediately given the correct answer on the screen. This means that students know swiftly how they fared on questions and whether they have learned the prescribed material.

Here is an example of a page in a linear programmed instruction book aimed at teaching English grammar (Joseph Blumenthal (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1962).

Driven by psychological theories of positive reinforcement, that is, a focus on rewarding students for doing a classroom task well (e.g., gold star on homework; letting students who aced an exam skip a homework assignment) and following classroom rules for behavior (e.g., scheduling a classroom party for a month), programmed learning rewarded students immediately by revealing correct answers to questions. Teacher-made versions of programmed learning have become ubiquitous in elementary and secondary classroom worksheets that teachers use weekly in all academic subjects.

Teachers use worksheets for drill-and-practice in knowledge that students have covered. Students complete these worksheets during the lesson or as homework. Many teachers create their own worksheets while just as many buy commercially produced ones that fit the content and skills they are teaching. Most worksheets, however, lack the immediate feedback to students that programmed learning promised. If worksheets are done in class, teachers or small groups of students can determine whether answers were correct or not during the lesson. But more often than not, students’ worksheet answers have to wait until the teacher sees those answers or when teachers have students see the correct answers as part of the lesson. That separation in time between students answering questions and finding out which answers were incorrect undermines the immediate feedback promised in the theory and practice of programmed learning.

Here is an example of a math worksheet for a primary grade classroom;

Here is a worksheet for high school biology lesson on the brain:

By the 1970s and 1980s, programmed learning had become part of the kit bag of techniques that teachers could use in other highly hyped school reforms aimed at individualizing (or “personalizing”) instruction. For example, within the hype surrounding “competency based education” (CBE) and “computer-assisted instruction” (CAI) rested the guided drill and practice worksheets that earlier generations of teachers had students complete. Thus, with worksheets, teachers adapted a version of programmed learning that students filled in by hand or tapping away on computer keyboards.

And that is what happened to programmed learning.

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*In 1928, psychologist Sidney Pressey created the first teaching machine using programmed learning. The dream of “teaching machines” has morphed into computer-assisted instruction.

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