The Keller Method, Updated: One Possible Way for Improving Higher Education

How might universities and colleges be structured to reflect the needs of the 21st century?

Nothing I could suggest is going to be perfect, or even practical. But change is needed. Our present system was designed for an age that has slipped away. If we don’t begin to try, at least, to find means of educating that reflect the changing needs of students and society, the United States is going to further slip behind in an evolving world.

What I want to suggest, first, is that we find new ways of approaching the core curriculum. This is a little easier than looking at the needs of more advanced students, for all students take most of the core courses, making coordination simpler.

First, I would change our department structures, leaving them responsibilities for hiring, renewal, promotion, and tenure—and for oversight of majors—but taking from them direct oversight of the core. This would become the responsibility of a separate structure composed out of faculty directly involved in the core. I am not going to worry right now about how that structure would look… after all, this is only a dream, and a rather tentative one, at that. The point is that it be multi-disciplinary.

Faculty involved in the core program would work in teams of five, each team responsible for a group of 125 students. Every other week, each of the team would give a fifty-minute lecture related to their specialty and the work the students are engaged in, a lecture prepared with awareness of what they others are lecturing on and with motivation being at least one purpose. That means these lectures would be expected to be entertaining as well as informational and would deal with the more sweeping aspects of the particular fields and their places within the world.

Lecture halls that could hold upwards of 125 students and staff would have to be crafted, but there would be no necessity of the traditional, smaller classroom. Space once devoted to them could be used for screening rooms, conference rooms (with space for up to a dozen to work together), study carrels with complete Web access, and more. The purpose will be to have created a flexible environment where work individually and in teams can be initiated and completed as need be.

The role of the teacher, in this environment, would be heavily bureaucratic—developing curricula, coordinating with other instructors, monitoring progress, etc. But there would also be more chance for substantial time working with particular students and groups of students on specific projects. In ”Good-bye, Teacher,”, Fred Keller outlines the basic role of the instructor:

The instructor will have as his principal responsibilities: (a) the selection of all study material used in the course: (b) the organization and the mode of presenting this material; (c) the construction of tests and examinations; and (d) the final evaluation of each student’s progress. It will be his duty, also, to provide lectures, demonstrations, and discussion opportunities for all students who have earned the privilege; to act as a clearing-house for requests and complaints; and to arbitrate in any case of disagreement between students and proctors or assistants.

Heavy emphasis would be placed on student responsibility, one to each other, ability to progress being tied to performance of tasks of assistance to other students.

In a particular day, a student might start by checking the scheduling program and choosing a lecture to attend, attendance monitored through PDAs. The student, needing work on an area of weakness, might seek out a group signaling interest in that area and attend an impromptu workshop. At another point in the day, the student might check in with others working on a particular group project, might work through individualized readings or instruction of another sort, might tutor another student or receive individualized tutoring… all of this monitored through PDAs. Teachers and students would frequently communicate, both in person and through the Web.

Keller provides a list of the distinct aspects of the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or ‘Keller Method’ or ‘Mastery’ on which I would base this program:

(1) The go-at-your-own-pace feature, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.
(2) The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.
(3) The use of lectures and demonstrations as vehicles of motivation, rather than sources of critical information.
(4) The related stress upon the written word in teacher-student communication; and, finally:
(5) The use of proctors, which permits repeated testing, immediate scoring, almost unavoidable tutoring, and a marked enhancement of the personal-social aspect of the educational process.

This type of program was first introduced more than fifty years ago, though within the discipline of Psychology and not across the curriculum. It also stems, in this particular, from the ‘learning communities’ concept, but with more strength than the generally anemic LCs that I have so often seen in operation. Though it is still used at times (it is one of the sparks behind the ongoing Peer Led Team Learning program that originated at City College and that we are working on using as an aid to writing classes at my own New York City College of Technology, a sister CUNY campus), PSI has pretty much disappeared over the past thirty years, as colleges have regressed into a more static model of teaching and the classroom.

There’s a great deal more to this than I have outlined here. What I am doing right now is expressing what could be one way of restructuring a part of our college and university learning environments in a way that could make students more active in their learning while breaking down some of the walls that we have constructed within our institutions.

Something of this nature could even be used without shaking our structures too terribly much. It would allow students to gain experience working in teams, designing their own program (I have not gone into that here, but it could even include a ‘stretch’ feature allowing students to take more than a single semester to complete certain work), working with digital possibilities as aids to their education, and much more.

My point isn’t that this is the way to go, simply that there are ways of releasing our colleges and universities from the clutches of ways of thinking about education that no longer meet the needs of students or society. We need to be exploring them.

Even the pathways that prove to be dead ends will provide more to the students than does the system that we have in place right now. After all, one learns from failure as much as one does from success.