Scratching an Itch

When I ask professors to tell me about their courses, it’s not uncommon for them to respond with a list of readings or topics. Many of us conceptualize the teaching and learning process as an organized list of content to cover. Some of this makes sense: academic experts have spent their careers digesting, critiquing, and creating such content. When the discussion is couched in the context of an online course, many might refer to the videos and/or interactive multimedia they want to use, the structural features of the LMS, and or additional technologies that might be critical to the delivery of their learning.

Scratching an itch that doesn’t exist…that’s not just bad design, it’s downright uncomfortable.

Dav Rauch, IDEO

Generally speaking though, I don’t think this is why many of us teach (at least those of us who enjoy doing so); and it’s certainly not why people learn. One doesn’t need to look hard to uncover a discussion in the academy about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Some version of, “I wish my students wanted to learn for the sake of learning,” is frequently uttered around institutions. It is reasonable to expect that students learn how to balance extrinsic and intrinsic factors. It is not, however, the responsibility of students alone.

From Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do[1]

An emphasis on coverage rushes students through material, giving them inadequate time to contemplate deeply. Classes that entail large quantities of work can force people to look for superficial shortcuts just to survive the experience…The financial pressures to rush through school, get the degree, and get a job are tremendous. Yet schools do not bear all of the responsibility. They are set in a larger society that constantly pushes people toward the superficial and encourages students to value honors and recognition over deep understanding.” 

Students are not the only ones encountering these disparate influences, though. Faculty are also often familiar with conflicting motivators and the challenges presented by external pressures (see: “Souling out“).

Comic: The Evolution of Academic Freedom

© Jorge Chan

So how do we change it; and why does this matter for course design?

The easy thing to do is design around features, and we find that those [efforts] don’t generally [deliver] the best experiences.

In their discussion of designing human-centered experiences,[2] Anne Trausch & Dav Rauch ask us to identify the “itch” that people are looking to scratch. We don’t attend concerts, they suggest, because we want to experience the quality of the sound, lights and images. Studio recordings and music videos can do all of these things better. We go for the connection; the transcendence; the…well, listen in:

Trausch and Rauch identify 6 itches that people are looking to scratch when pursuing experiences: connection, empathy, discovery, mastery, creation, and transcendence. Interestingly, these work pretty well as relevant “itches” for learners, too. Identifying the relevant scratches for the students in a class can help connect them to the learning. Beginning with itches, rather than content or features, can lead to deeper, more meaningful learning experiences. What do our students want to do? What do we most want for them get out of our classes (and is it really content-centered)?

Certain methods of flexible course design can allow students to help shape their own learning experiences within a framework established by an instructor or curriculum. [3] Feature and content-based design on the other hand tries to scratch an itch that doesn’t exist.

“How do we break the thrall to tools and technologies which may limit the horizon of our pedagogical creativity?”

-Paul Fyfe, Digital Pedagogies Unplugged

Beginning one’s course design with content or tools rather than people runs the risk of creating classroom environments (both online and elsewhere) that alienate rather than engage. One of the many reasons why the MOOC is not the panacea that many claimed it would be, is that in many cases they were designed to center content and features, rather than people.


A final model for course design that effectively scratches those learning “itches” is Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning:

Diagram of Fink's Taxonomy of Significant LearningWhile Fink’s list is not a one-to-one corollary to the six itches identified above, its framework encourages faculty to focus most closely on the things that matter both to them and to their students. Content and features will likely be part of the decision making process. Ideally, though, they don’t show up in the ideation process until one has identified more meaningful goals.


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