The Design of an Educational System

Engineering Education, February 1972

Charles E. Wales and Robert A. Stager

Education, like many other professions, has its researchers and its practitioners. But what education does not have is enough teachers who translate the results of research into improved operations. As a result, much of the available research on learning has not been effectively incorporated into the present educational system. Of course the present system is functional, but design work could make it much more effective. This paper describes such a design effort and the type of system that results.

The Design Process

The design of an educational system is no different than the design of any other complex operation. It requires a high level of professional ability, a background of appropriate educational and psychological principles, and the ability to make decisions. The design process, which we will apply to an educational system, involves such steps as identify the problem, state the design goal, gather information, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

The Problem

The first step in the design process is to identify the problem that exists. The designer is particularly concerned with a problem identified by many people — that the present educational system concentrates on teaching students to recall facts, concepts and principles, and neglects the development of other, higher level cognitive skills. in contrast, a college president described the purpose of the educational system in the following words.

What more than anything else characterizes a university? The belief in reason - the belief that men and women, through fact and logic, can reach better understandings about the meaning of life.... That's really what a university is all about. And I welcome you to another year in the pursuit of reason....4

Does a problem exist? To find out, the designer decides he must determine two things. First, what are the higher level cognitive skills that constitute "reason"? The answer comes from the research work of an outstanding group of educators and psychologists who developed a set of intellectual operations 2 similar to those shown in figure 1: the intellectual situations, modes and abilities.


Figure 1. Intellectual Operations
Intellectual Situations
  1. Single-Answer Problem, Convergent Thinking. This type of problem has one and only one correct answer. For example, 2 + 2 = 4. The typical textbook problem is a single answer problem.
  2. Open-Ended Problem, Divergent Thinking, Design. This type of problem has no single correct answer. It may have a "best" answer, but different people may not even agree on which answer is best, i.e., marriage is an open-ended problem.
Intellectual Modes
  1. Analyze: break something down into meaningful elements and determine how they are related and organized.
  2. Synthesize: create new patterns.
  3. Evaluate: choose from among various alternates.
Intellectual Abilities
  1. Recall: memorizing concepts which can be recalled, stated or identified.
  2. Manipulate: rearrange, reorganize or restate a concept or solve an equation.
  3. Translate: change a message from one symbolic form (verbal, graphical, mathematical) to another form.
  4. Interpret: recognize the significance of data, a concept or result; draw inferences and compare answers.
  5. Predict: predict results, trends, implications, consequences or effects.
  6. Choose: independently select the appropriate concept required to solve a problem.

Next the designer must determine if the present system does, in fact, neglect the development of these intellectual operations. To find this answer, he studies examination papers and talks to both students and faculty. He learns that in the present system prime emphasis is placed on the directed single-answer problem situation, the analysis mode, and the recall and manipulation abilities. Occasionally, a few of the other operations are included, but there is no organized, integrated effort to develop them. Since it seems clear that an educated professional should command all of the intellectual operations, the designer decides that a problem does exist. There is a need for design work.


The designer is now ready to take the next step in the design process - the specification of the goals of the educational system he will design. Although his prime concern is with the pursuit of reason, he realizes that each student must learn some of the facts, concepts and principles required in the reasoning process. Therefore, Goal 1 is specified: transmit information to the student and provide experiences which make it possible for him to demonstrate that he can use the six intellectual abilities when he applies appropriate facts, concepts, and principles to the solution of single-answer problems.

Goal 2 is related to the pursuit of reason: provide experiences which show the student that the primary function of each course in his college education is to help him learn to think for himself, think logically, gather and organize information, make decisions, discuss and communicate ideas, and use the three intellectual modes in the solution of open-ended problems.

The designer is still not satisfied; he knows that the reasoning process must be based on knowledge, but it must also be tempered by some kind of value judgments. Therefore, he adds Goal 3: provide experiences which will help the student learn how to develop and make use of a value system, which involves sociological and environmental concerns, when he solves open-ended problems.

Finally, the designer decides that these three goals can best be achieved if the student has an integrated experience. Therefore, he adds Goal 4: provide each student with an opportunity to practice the role of a professional in the discipline he is studying, so he can learn to perform that role.

Now that the designer has specific goals for his design work, he asks this question: "Complex subject matter is developed over a period of time in a series of courses. Should the intellectual operations be developed in the same way?" The answer to this question is supplied by the research results of educational psychologists who have shown that only small gains are attained in critical thinking when merely a single course in a college program aims to develop this type of competence. On the other hand, when the entire curriculum is devoted to this same purpose (i.e., when these objectives become the theme that plays through a large number of courses) the students' gains in critical thinking become very large. In effect, the entire educational environment must be turned toward the achievement of complex objectives if they are to be attained in any significant way. 5

This and the other answers convince the designer that each course in the educational system should contribute its share to the intellectual development of the student.

Gather Information

The designer knows that his system must be created from components such as the lecture, discussion, experiments, audio-visual aids, reading material, etc. However, recognizing his limitations, he turns to experts in educational psychology for more information about these components and the way in which they should be combined. One valuable piece of information he discovers is the list of psychological principles 10 shown in figure 2. These principles should guide every teacher in the design and operation of his course work. In addition, he learns that certain teaching-learning activities are best suited to achieve specific goals. 8 This information combined with that drawn from other resources 3,7 prepares the designer for the next step in the design process.

Figure 2. Psychological Principles
Organize the Subject Matter for Presentation to the Student
  1. Identify the specific concepts and principles the student must learn.
  2. Arrange the concepts and principles in sequence from simple to complicated.
  3. Provide organizers.
    1. Verbal, Visual
    2. Include concrete empirical illustrations and analogies.
Organize the Student's Practice of the Intellectual Modes and Abilities
  1. Identify the specific modes and abilities the student will practice.
  2. Integrate these modes and abilities with the content.

Organize the Student's Intellectual Development

1. Guide the student as he learns.

  1. Demonstrate or model and/or provide a situation in which the student can experiment and/or discover the desired behavior.
  2. Supervise the student's initial trials.
  3. Use the necessary prompts. Withdraw this support gradually as the student's ability develops.
  4. Describe to the student the intellectual modes and abilities involved in his work and relate each to specific activities.
  5. Help the student learn to evaluate his own performance.

2. Provide for practice

  1. Ensure that the student is active.
  2. Pace his work, spaced practice is best.
  3. Vary the context.

3. Evaluate and provide feedback.

  1. To reinforce correct responses.
  2. To correct inadequate responses.
  3. Immediately during initial learning.
  4. Frequently thereafter.
  5. Formative: provide the student with diagnostic progress information about his performance.
  6. Summative: determine if the student has mastered the stated objectives and is ready to move on.

4. Motivate

  1. Encourage the desired behavior.
  2. Show the value of:
    1. learning.
    2. the concepts and principles to be learned by show ing their relevance to meaningful work.
  3. Help the student achieve success.

5. Individualize

  1. Provide for students who learn at different rates.
  2. Enrichment for the fast learner.
  3. Extra help for the slow learner.

Analyze, Synthesize, Evaluate

To achieve Goals 2, 3 and 4, the designer has learned that he should provide for student-teacher discussion of open-ended problems. The obvious time for this discussion is during formal class meetings. But this creates a problem. If a majority of class time is used for discussion, then the designer must find some way to achieve Goal 1 outside of class. As you might expect, the textbook is one of the first techniques that comes to mind.

However, his study of the second and third Psychological Principles quickly convince the designer that the text alone will not do the job. The weaknesses of the typical text are quite apparent: a text simply presents information; it does not help the student learn and practice specific intellectual operations which he can transfer to other work; it does not guide, prompt or provide feedback; it is a polished exposition which limits the student's effort primarily to remembering. 9

The search for other techniques to achieve Goal 1 soon leads the designer to the following decisions. The primary transmission of subject matter and student practice of the six intellectual abilities with single answer problems is performed either in an audio-tutorial learning center or outside of class using programmed instruction. Each of these techniques makes the student a participant in-the learning process and each provides the designer with a way to guide, prompt and reinforce him. The built in feedback tells the student if he has arrived at the correct response, reinforces his independent thinking if he has done the work properly and informs him if he is wrong. However, the text does have a logical place in the designer's system, either as a component in the information presentation system or as a reference work to which the student goes after he has learned the appropriate concepts by self-study. And later, when the student is developing his own learning system, the text, handbooks and other professional literature resources become the basis for his learning.

The designer is now ready to consider a detailed solution for Goals 2, 3 and 4. He realizes that the most significant constraint he must face is class size. If there were only one student and one teacher or tutor. there would be no problem. But what do you do with thirty students or fifty or more? The answer to this problem is a new teaching technique called Guided Design 10, which makes a Socratic tutor of both printed matter and the students themselves. This technique is actually the logical extension of the programmed learning format (information question-action feedback) to the solution of open-ended problems. In Guided Design the students work in small groups where they perform as professionals who discuss and solve problems which involve decisions that affect people. The students' work is coordinated by printed instructions which ask them to perform a step in the decision-making process. After they discuss and complete the step, they receive the next page which gives them feedback on the step they have completed and the information and question for the next step.

Experience with this Guided Design pattern at both the graduate and undergraduate level has shown that the printed instructions and feedback allow the teacher to model, guide, and provide feedback on the reasoning process in a step-by-step fashion that the student can comprehend. This is in sharp contrast to the corresponding verbal process which is typically much too sophisticated for the student to understand. In addition, the printed material frees the teacher so he can individualize his interaction with each student, guide him, evaluate his efforts, provide reinforcement, feedback and encouragement. Guided Design is, of course, only the first step in the intellectual development of the student As his ability evolves, the student will progress from carefully guided problems to increasing freedom with case studies, simulations, games and finally, authentic professional involvement.

The designer is now prepared to specify the pattern of activities which will satisfy the rest of his design goals. Goal 2 can be achieved by giving the students open-ended problems to discuss and solve in class. The students do the thinking, while the teacher supervises their efforts, guides them, models the decision-making process and gives them feedback. The amount of teacher support decreases as the student's ability grows, as indicated earlier. The problems used are carefully developed so they also satisfy Goals 3 and 4. First, each problem will require the student to make professional decisions which include a value system analysis. Second, each problem will establish the need for part of the subject matter so the student's experience resembles that of a professional who gathers the information he needs to solve his problems.


As his system takes form, the designer begins to consider the measurement techniques he will use, not only to evaluate the work of the students, but also to evaluate his course design. His research on testing shows that each student's ability should be measured against a set of content-performance objectives. 8 Each objective describes the intellectual performance the student is expected to demonstrate with the given content, as shown in figure 3.

Figure 3. Content-Performance Objectives for a Concept
At the end of a period of study, each student should be able to:
Intellectual Ability Action
Recall Write the concept.
Manipulation Restate the concept in a new form.
Translate Convert the concept from verbal to graphical or symbolic form.
Interpret State the results derived from the use of the concept.
Predict State the expected effect of the concept.
Choose Independently select the concept and use it to solve a problem.

A complete set of objectives such as these establishes the basis for both the student's preparation and the examination of his ability to achieve Goal 1. Another set of objectives, similar to those shown in figure 4, can be used as a base to test for the other goals.

Figure 4. Content-Performance Objectives for Decision-Making

At the end of a period of study, each student should be able to solve an open-ended problem using:

Decision-Making Skill Action
Gather Information Gather required information from appropriate sources.
Problem Identification Identify a problem.
Basic Objective State the basic objective of the project.
Constraints/Assumptions List the constraints and assumptions which affect the project.
Possible Solutions Generate possible solutions which appear to meet the basic object five.
Analysis Break down a problem into its constituent parts.
Synthesis Combine elements from many sources into a pattern not previously known to the student.
Evaluation Make purposeful judgments about the value of ideas, methods, designs, or effects.
Report Report the results and make recommendations.
Action Implement the decision.

Using the Psychological Principles as a guide, the designer decides that his system should allow individual students to work at their own pace. To provide for this, the designer adopts the mastery approach to examinations. Mastery is based on the knowledge that different people learn at different rates and that most college students can learn if they have enough time. 1 Thus, students are no longer allowed to proceed through a course with a "C" or "D" ability. Instead, each student must demonstrate that he has mastered each segment of the material before he moves on.

The designer knows that all the components of his system will not operate properly from the outset. Therefore, he adopts the attitude traditionally used in the development of programmed instruction: If the student fails to learn what is expected, look first at what he was asked to do, second at the materials he was given to learn from, and finally at the student's use or misuse of those materials. The student is not assumed to have failed until you are sure that it wasn't the system which failed him. The use of mastery also aids in the evaluation of the systems design. With mastery, the teacher must find a way to help each student learn what is required. This help provides the feedback needed to improve the design of the system.


You have now completed a quick tour of an educational system's design. In this tour we have tried to show how the research work of educators and psychologists, coupled with design ability, can produce a better educational system. The background of principles needed for this design work have been described in this paper; they are easily within your grasp. We hope you will accept the challenge, implement these ideas, and make the system of education as modern and up-to-date as the systems created by other professionals.


This paper describes educational systems design work which was supported by the dean and faculty of the WVU College of Engineering and the Esso Education Foundation. We are grateful for this support.


  1. Block, James H., Mastery Learning: Theory and Practice, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1971.
  2. Bloom, B.,, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain, McKay, New York, 1969.
  3. Gagne, R. M., The Conditions of Learning, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1970.
  4. Harlow, J. G., WVU, An Occasional Paper Published for the University Community, August, 1970.
  5. Krathwohl, D.,, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Affective Domain, McKay, New York, 1964.
  6. Mager, R. F., Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearon, Palo Alto, 1962.
  7. Mager, R. F., Developing Attitude Toward Learning, Fearon, Palo Alto, 1968.
  8. McKeachie, W. J., Teaching Tips, D. C. Heath & Co., Lexington, Mass., 1969.
  9. Sanders, Norris M., Classroom Questions - What Kinds?, Harper and Row, New York, 1966.
  10. Wales, C. E., and Stager, R. A., Educational System Design, available from C. E. Wales, West Virginia University, 1970.

This paper is based on work done at West Virginia University by Dr. Charles E. Wales, Director of Freshman Engineering, and Dr. Robert A. Stager, who was on sabbatical leave from the Faculty of Applied Science, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada.