Educational Systems Design

CHARLES E. WALES, Associate Professor of Engineering, Wright State University

Engineering Education, March 1969

Systems Engineering is a method of approach to a complex design problem which has proven its value in many areas of our society. This method has been used so successfully to solve problems in medicine, space technology, defense, transportation, and communications that it seems only logical to extend its use to the design of an educational system, and that is the purpose of this article. A model of an educational system that includes typical components is shown in Figure 1. Systems engineering is the process of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation which develops and combines these components into a successful operation.

Basic Philosophy and Objectives

The logical starting point in the analysis or design of any educational system is an examination of its basic philosophy and basic objectives. The philosophy of an existing educational system can often be inferred from the activities that take place in its classes. For a typical system, the primary activities are lectures by the teacher, textbook reading assignments, homework problems, laboratory exercises, and examinations. The student listens to the lectures and reads the text. Both expose him to the ideas and thought process of someone else; unfortunately, the student may do little thinking of his own. The homework problems and laboratory work may require certain types of thinking, but frequently no more than following directions, choosing the correct relationship, substituting numbers, and grinding out an answer. Examinations all too often involve no more than the recall or application of the concepts the student has heard or read.

An appropriate title for this system might be the "Happening System," and its philosophy might be summarized by the statement, "A college education is a happening, not an experience." The student is minimally involved in this educational system; thinking for himself is not a requirement; he simply learns about things. The basic objective of the Happening System can be stated as follows: 1. The student should understand the fundamental facts and principles of the disciplines on which his work is based, as shown by his ability to (a) recall and reproduce the ideas and concepts presented, (b) demonstrate his comprehension by manipulating these concepts, and (c) apply these concepts to solve problems using convergent thinking and deduction.

This basic objective is an excellent one, and the system itself is functional and may produce capable graduates. However, many educators attribute the success of this Happening System to the high level of the intellectual ability of the college student and to the fact that learning is a "natural" activity of capable people, rather than to any characteristic of the system itself.

The major shortcoming of this Happening System is the fact that it is based on a very limited set of objectives: recall, manipulation, and application. The student is not required to practice many of the behaviors that characterize an educated person, whose real value is his ability to analyze problems, gather the required information, synthesize solutions, and evaluate alternate plans. These characteristics may be summarized by saying, "An educated person is distinguished by his ability to apply concepts to the solution of open­ended problems." The objective of the present, limited educational system does not include these abilities, and thus appears to neglect the behaviors most crucial to success in today's complex society.

The philosophy of a system designed to produce an educated person might be stated as follows: "A college education should be an experience, not a happening." The basic objectives of recall, manipulation, and application also apply to this "Experience System,'' but two additional objectives can be stated: 2. The student should be able to think for himself; he should think logically, respect evidence, and be able to apply analysis, synthesis, and evaluation to the solution of open­ended problems using divergent thinking and induction; 3. The student should be able to learn by himself: given a problem that requires knowledge and abilities he does not possess, he will be able to obtain or acquire the information and skills needed by identifying and using of other people, the library, the experimental laboratory, the community, and the business or industrial world, to bring the needed abilities to the problem for its solution.

At the end of his formal education, each student should have attained these three major objectives. However, if he is to make an effective and meaningful contribution in today's world, he must have two additional abilities: 4. The student should be able to communicate the results of his work in an appropriate manner: orally, graphically, mathematically, or in writing; 5. The student should be able to evaluate and provide for the human and sociological elements involved in his work. If these five objectives describe an educated person, then they should be the basis for the design of every educational system.

Specific Course Objectives

The philosophy and basic objectives must be translated into the specific objectives for a course. The key to this translation is found in two books: Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain (Ref. 3), and Mager's Preparing Instructional Objectives (Ref. 4). Mager's book describes the form of a correctly stated objective as, "a statement which identifies the educational objective (content) and describes the behavior of the student (performance) when he demonstrates he has learned that objective." When these "content­performance" statements are organized, using the cognitive levels defined by Bloom, an effective course design is well on the way. Bloom's Taxonomy defines six cognitive levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These six levels are identical to the six sub­divisions in Parts 1 and 2 of the basic objectives for a college education.

By defining a set of content­performance objective statements in the style specified by Mager for each item on the syllabus for a course and including some objectives at each of the cognitive levels specified previously, one can establish the basis for a course which is likely to satisfy the first two basic objectives. This preparation is not a simple task. It requires a penetrating analysis and organization of the content involved. This is probably the crucial step in the design of any educational system. Success at this point will make the rest of the system design much easier to perform.

Content­Performance Objectives

The following paragraphs comprise a set of content­performance objectives prepared for the ideal gas law. This basic equation is presented to students in chemist try, physics, and engineering courses. However, in typical Happening System fashion, the student only learns that the law exists and uses it to solve simple Closed problems. His experience with the law is so limited and the rate of forgetting so high that he must relearn the law each time he is exposed to it. If the law were developed to the depth described by the objectives in this example, it is likely that the student would remember and be able to use it for a substantially longer period of time.



To demonstrate that he knows about the ideal gas law, each student should be able to do the following:

1.10. Knowledge of specifics 1

1.1 1. Terminology

(a) Define each term in the equation PV = nRT and state two sets of units for each term.

(b) Define extensive property and intensive property, and give examples of each.

1.12. Facts

(a) Specify the numerical value of the following variables: P in units of psia, atm, mm Hg, in. Hg; T in units of °F, °R, °C, °K; V in units of ft3/lb mole, liters/g mole; R in units of atm ft3/lb mole °R, Btu/lb mole °R.

(b) State the conditions of T and P at which a real gas can be expected to behave as an ideal gas.

1.20. Knowledge of ways and means of dealing with specifics conventions

(a) State two sets of standard conditions to show that the choice of a set is arbitrary.

(b ) State the value and units of the volume that corresponds to a set of standard conditions of: 14.7 psia, I lb mole, 520°R and 760 mm Hg, I g mole, 492°R.

1.30. Knowledge of universals and abstractions

1.31. Principles and generalizations

(a) Write the intensive form of the ideal gas law.

(b) Draw the three orthographic projections of the P­V­T surface.

(c) Draw an isotherm, isobar, and isometric on these diagrams.

1.32. Theories and structures

(a) Define the concept of an "equation of state.

(b) Write or identify three equations of state.

(c) Describe the molecular characteristics of an ideal gas.


To demonstrate that he comprehends the ideal gas law, the student should be able to demonstrate the correct use of the law when specifically asked to do so. Therefore, the student should be able to:

2.10 Translation

(a) Differentiate the ideal gas law, solve for the slope of an isotherm and the slope of an isobar.

(b) Explain the effect of a change in the level of P on the slope of an isobar and of T on the slope of an isotherm; and show these changes on the P­V­T space model for an ideal gas.

(c) Identify a practical example of a situation where the ideal gas law applies.

2.20. Interpretation

Use the ideal gas law to predict the effect of changing one variable while two variables are held constant.

2.30. Extrapolate

Use the ideal gas law and given data to calculate the value of one unknown variable, either P. V, n, molecular weight, R. or T.


Given a problem statement which is new to him, the student should be able to choose and use the appropriate concept without being prompted or shown how to use it. Ideally the problem should test the extent to which the student has learned to apply the concept of the ideal gas law in a practical way. The problem may be fictional or based on material the student is not likely to have had contact with. The steps in the problem solution are: 1. The student perceives the problem and determines that it has both familiar and unfamiliar aspects, 2. The student restructures the problem to a familiar model; 3. The student selects the appropriate concept and method of solution; 4. The student solves the problem.


To demonstrate his ability to perform an analysis, each student should be able to:

4.10. Elements

Break down a problem statement into its constituent parts and identify and classify its elements, including hypotheses, assumptions, facts, and conclusions.

4.20. Relationships

Determine the relationship between the elements to explain their connections and interactions, including the ability to check the consistency of hypotheses, distinguish cause and effect relationships, and detect relevant and irrelevant ideas.

4.30. Organizational Principles

Determine the arrangement, structure, and organizing principles, including the relation of materials and means of production, the purpose, and the techniques.


Synthesis is defined as the process of putting together elements and parts, combining them in such a way as to constitute a pattern or structure not clearly there before. Therefore, to demonstrate his ability to perform a synthesis, the student should be able to draw upon elements from many sources and combine these into a structure or pattern not previously known to him. Synthesis may result in the production of a unique communication, a plan, a design, or a set of abstract relations.

Guidelines for the production of a plan, a proposed sot of operations, or a design are: 1. The plan must satisfy the requirements or specifications (input, output, operating restrictions) of the proposed design; 2. The student may be given specifications or he may have to assume them. These specifications furnish the criteria for the evaluation of the design.


Evaluation is defined as the making of purposeful judgments about the value of ideas, solutions, methods, or designs. It involves the use of stated criteria and standards for appraising the extent to which a design or the details of a design are accurate, effective, economical, safe, humanitarian, or satisfying. Judgments may be quantitative or qualitative. The criteria used may be determined by the student or given to him.

Judgments may be based on internal standards of consistency, accuracy, and logic or upon external standards such as the ends to be satisfied or the appropriateness of the means used to the ends in bans of efficiency, economy, utility, or safety. To demonstrate his ability to perform an evaluation, the student should be able to make these judgments.

(The numbers and titles in this set of objectives correspond to the categories defined by Bloom.)

Selection of the Process Operations

The process operations selected for any educational design must suit the philosophy, basic objectives, and established content­performance objectives of the system. It seems logical to examine the potential of each process operation in these terms.

1. The first basic objective states that the student should demonstrate his understanding of concepts by recalling and reproducing information, by using the concept when asked to do so, and by choosing and correctly applying the concept to a new problem.

The knowledge a student is expected to recall can be transmitted to him by a lecture, television, film, tape recorder, textbooks, or programmed instruction. At its best, the lecture is a living, moving presentation which motivates the student and helps him focus his attention on the essential, universal elements of a discipline. However, the value of the lecture is a function of the basic objectives of the course. Research data (Ref. 5) have shown that if recall is the primary objective of the course and examinations are based on the text, the student will get a better grade if he does not go to a lecture class. By avoiding the lecture, the student eliminates extra ideas and viewpoints that might serve to confuse him on an exam. A large lecture class can have a similar effect. Because fewer questions are asked in a large class, the student is less likely to be exposed to confusing or conflicting viewpoints.

If a live lecture is used to transmit information to the student, the course has the very limited objective of recall, or there is no other process available to do the job. In general, the limited time a teacher has in face­to­face confrontation with his students is too valuable to waste transmitting information. Instead, this time should be used to perform the more important job of demonstrating the higher level cognitive processes and to guide the student as he learns how to perform these processes and to think for himself. The lecture can be used in this demonstration process, but the student's vicarious experience is not an effective learning activity. If the student is to learn a certain behavior, then he must practice that behavior and know that he has done it correctly.

The discussion class is an effective method for providing the student with both the practice and the necessary feedback about his performance. A properly conducted discussion can generate student interest, force students to be active mentally, and stimulate more relevant student thinking and problem solving. If the discussion provides for practice in critical thinking in a variety of contexts, it can increase the student's ability to transfer what he has learned to new situations. In a discussion, the student must perform the psychologically important task of reformulating ideas in his own words and structure of ideas (Ref. 2). Feedback to the student is immediate because he can check his ideas against those of his fellow students or the instructor.

The discussion technique has two drawbacks, however. First, it is more difficult to prepare and evaluate an examination which tests the student's ability to think than it is to prepare an examination which tests for factual knowledge. Second, the discussion is not as effective a method of transmitting new information as the lecture. This handicap can be overcome by using available teaching aids to transmit knowledge outside of class. The teacher who uses these aids frees class time to shape the growth of his students' minds. By this process, the teacher assumes an increasingly significant posture, advancing beyond the role of information dispenser. The teacher gains Freedom to devote his energy to guide the student through the trials which lead to the attainment of intellectual maturity. If class time is reserved for these important functions, then information must be transmitted to the student by some type of independent study device, which can probably do the job with greater patience than the teacher.

The printed page is the next logical choice for the job of transmitting information to the student and teaching him how to choose and use basic concepts. When the student reads, he can proceed at his own rate; he can stop, go back, and reread any material he does not understand. The independent study processes that fall in this category are the textbook, which is the most commonly used device, and programmed instruction, which is a better independent study device.

2. The second basic objective states that the student should be able to think logically, respect evidence, and be able to apply analysis, synthesis, and evaluation to open­ended problems.

The lecture can be used to demonstrate each of these activities; but, again, if the student is to learn these behaviors, he must practice them himself. The discussion class is well suited for providing this practice because the teacher can guide the students as they learn. The teacher's role in a discussion is that of stimulator and as a model of thinking behavior. The teacher can initiate the discussion by providing the students with information that stimulates disagreement or by posing an open­ended question. The branched forms of programmed instruction and computer­assisted instruction can provide the student with similar experiences.

The case problem is probably one of the best vehicles for developing the highest cognitive behaviors in the student. After he has solved a case problem, the student can compare his results with those of his classmates and a professional who has solved the problem. In addition, he can make appropriate comparisons and evaluations of the various solutions.

The first two basic objectives involve six levels of cognitive activity which the student should practice. The remaining three basic objectives differ from the first two in the sense that they involve methods or attitudes. The lecture can be used to describe and demonstrate these methods and attitudes, and the discussion class can be used 40 guide the student as he attempts to learn the appropriate behaviors. In whatever way the student is initially guided to learn these behaviors, he must practice them himself. Independent laboratory work, library research, design problems, and case studies are all appropriate to these objectives.

Design of the Process

Research in educational psychology has shown that the three most successful methods of improving an educational systems design are: 1. To determine the characteristics of the student inputs to the system; 2. To establish content­performance objectives for the system; and 3. To observe and measure the behavior of the teacher as he interacts with the students and the material. The characteristics of the student inputs to the system are important because the system must be designed to build upon a certain foundation. If that foundation is not present, even the most beautifully designed system must fail. The content­performance objectives are extremely important because, to a large extent, they dictate the materials, process operations, and evaluation techniques that will be used in the system design.

The third method of improving the system is based on the proven concept that the teacher can be more effective in his classroom if he understands both what he is doing and the effect of what he is doing on his students. One attempt to examine this process of student­teacher interaction is Flander's Categories for Interaction Analysis (Ref. 1 ) shown in Table 1.

TABLE 1. Flander's Categories for Interaction Analysis - Minnesota, 1958

Indirect influence

Teacher talk

1. a Accepts feeling: accepts and clarifies the feeling tone of the students in a non-threatening manner. Feeling may be positive or negative. Predicting or recalling feelings are included.

2. Praises or encourages: praises or encourages student action or behavior. Jokes that release tension, not at the expense of another individual, nodding head or saying, "um hm?" or, "go on" are included.

3. Accepts or uses ideas of student: clarifying, building, or developing ideas suggested by a student. As teacher brings more of his own ideas into play, shift to category five.

4. Asks questions: asking a question about content or procedure with the intent that a student answer.

Direct influence

5. Lecturing: give facts or opinions about content or procedure; expressing his own ideas, asking rhetorical questions.

6. Giving directions: directions, commands, or orders to which a student is expected to comply.

7. Criticizing or justifying authority: statements intended to change student behavior from non-acceptable to acceptable pattern; bawling someone out; stating why the teacher is doing what he is doing; extreme self­reference.

Student talk

8. Student talk ­ response: talk by students in response to teacher. Teacher initiates the contact or solicits student statement.

9. Student talk ­ initiation: talk by students which they initiate. If "calling on" student is only to indicate who may talk next, observer must decide whether student wanted to talk. If he did, use this category.

10. Silence or confusion: pauses, short periods of silence, and periods of confusion in which communication cannot be understood by the observer.

a There is no scale implied by these numbers. Each number is classificatory; it designates a particular kind of communication event. To write these numbers down during observation is to enumerate, not to judge a position on a scale.

The table identifies the activities that take place in a classroom as the students and teacher interact. If there is no verbal interaction, would be the case in a pure lecture class, the system is of no value. In fact, Flander's research shows that poor teaching is identified with an inflexible teacher who tends to use any single category of behavior. In this sense, his work supports other research that shows the lecture to be a poor teaching technique.

Flander's research shows that the kind of verbal interaction that occurs does make a significant difference in the amount of student learning that takes place. The difference is not in the amount of teacher talk, which usually involves 50­70% of class time, but in the amount of time the teacher uses indirect influence categories 1, 2, 3, and 4. The most effective teacher uses these four categories about 10% of the time. The less effective teacher uses these categories 0­4% of the time. One extremely important factor in this difference is that the effective teacher spends 0.3­0.5% of the class time in Category 1. Flander's research shows that whatever educational systems design is chosen, it will be a more effective system if it includes indirect influence activities. Students who are treated as human beings and who participate in the educational process learn more.

Design of a Sample System

To demonstrate the potential of an educational system that is designed to accomplish specific objectives, let us design a sample system that includes three process operations: programmed instruction to transmit fundamental facts and principles; the discussion class based on a design problem to develop the student's ability to think for himself; and an audio­tutorial laboratory to help the student learn how to search out the information he needs. This design is based on the first three basic objectives for a college education and on the content­performance objectives for the ideal gas law. It involves one week of work in a 3­credit­hour course.

Teaching the Student to Think for Himself. One of the basic educational objectives is to teach each student to think for himself. One way to achieve this objective is to design course work around a set of open­ended design problems. Thus, at the beginning of the first class period of the week devoted to the study of the ideal gas law, each student is given the following problem: "Design an air storage system for a scuba diver." During the class period the students are expected to analyze this problem, identify the significant elements, make assumptions and trial calculations, and begin to hypothesize solutions. This work will usually take the form of an open class discussion, but there may be occasions when the students work alone or in groups of two or three. Early in the course the instructor acts as the leader of this discussion, showing the students by his example how they can use the engineering method and demonstrating techniques of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. However, as the students' abilities develop, they can be expected to do a major share of this work on their own, and the instructor's role will become that of a supervisor, stimulator, and guide.

To solve this design problem, the students must consider the size, volume, shape, type of material, and weight of the scuba diver's tanks. The effect of buoyancy must be considered when the tank is full and when it is empty. Hence, the students must determine the weight of the air in the tanks. To calculate this weight, they need the ideal gas law. Thus, the design problem establishes the need for the subject matter to be studied during the week. This method of approach can be expected to increase the motivation of the student toward his work. He is not just learning the ideal gas law because it exists, he is learning the law because he needs it to solve a problem. If a student comes to college to be an engineer, it seems logical to conclude he will be motivated by an opportunity to play the role of an engineer as he solves a design problem.

Teaching the Student To Choose and Use the Concept. In this course design, class discussion accomplishes the important processes of student­teacher interaction. Therefore, class time is not available to transmit information about the ideal gas law to the student or to show him how to choose and apply the law correctly. The independent study device chosen to fill this need is programmed instruction. This device is chosen because it can be expected to develop the material in a logical step­by­step fashion and because it provides the student with feedback at each step along the way (Ref. 2). After the student has learned the concepts, he will be challenged to apply what he has learned by solving a set of familiar and new homework problems.

Information Sources ­ Learning on His Own. The third objective of this course is to teach­the student where and how to get the information he needs to solve an engineering problem. To accomplish this objective, one of the class periods is scheduled as a two­hour experience in an audio tutorial­type learning center. At the center, the recorded voice of the instructor guides each student as he independently performs three different activities: 1. A check of his homework problems; 2. Simple laboratory experiments; and 3. A search through pertinent literature.

The student reports to the learning center after he has completed his study of the programmed homework and has solved a set of typical closed homework problems. In the center, the student checks the results of his homework calculations. If he has an incorrect answer or if he had trouble with any problem, he can study a copy of the correct solution and listen to the recorded voice of his instructor explaining the calculations. Those who had no trouble can skip this part of the tape and proceed to the next set of instructions. The recorded voice of the instructor now guides the student through an examination of appropriate literature. This might include one or more textbook explanations of the week's concept, handbook references to the concept, and any related literature on the subject. Next, the tape guides the student through a set of simple laboratory experiments so he can confirm some aspect of the concept he has learned and have the experience of gathering the laboratory data required for a problem solution. Finally, the student is directed to and through the books available in the center where he can find the information he needs to solve the design problem. As the semester progresses, the amount of guidance the student receives will be reduced, and he will be expected to perform experiments and gather information on his own.

Evaluation of the Outputs

The outputs from this system are the students. If the system is a success, these students will be capable of performing many acts they could not perform before. These acts are described quite precisely by the content­performance objectives established at the beginning of the design. If these objectives are properly written, each one states what action or behavior the student must perform to demonstrate that he has learned about the ideal gas law. Therefore, each objective can be interpreted as an examination question or easily converted into such a question.

Using a series of questions derived from the content­performance objectives, one can write three types of examinations to measure the outputs from this system: a multiple­choice quiz, a set of closed problems, and a new design problem. Each of these examinations can be given in class or at the end of the audio­tutorial laboratory. All three should probably be used together to test for all the objectives of the course. The type of examination given in a course is extremely important, because, to a large extent, it determines the students' behavior patterns for the course. Students are aware of the fact that grades unlock doors, and they will learn whatever is necessary to get the grade they want. If the course grade is based on the memorization of the text, they will memorize the text. If the grade is based on the ability to apply analysis, synthesis, and evaluation to the solution of open­ended problems, they will try to acquire this ability. Since the primary objective of this course is to teach the student how to think for himself, a new design problem should be a significant part of the examination process.


The students receive feedback on their performance in several ways. When they study the programmed instruction, they receive immediate feedback about what they know and do not know at each step. If the multiple­choice quiz is given in the classroom, it can be graded, returned, and discussed immediately. If the quiz is given in the laboratory, a student assistant can use a key to grade it as each student finishes his work. When a closed problem or a new design problem is used for the examination, it becomes more difficult to provide immediate feedback, but even in this event, early class discussion and comparisons of design solutions can and should take place.

Each student's performance on these examinations is important not only to him, but to the teacher, because this performance is a measure of the effectiveness of the design and operation of the educational system. The students' success is the system's success. It is at this point, armed with output data, that the teacher can intelligently begin to re­examine the system.

Management of the System

The system has now gone through its full cycle. Some parts of it have probably been quite successful; other parts have not. At this point, it is appropriate to examine each component in the design to see if it contributes effectively or if it can be improved. It might be wise to approach this evaluation and redesign with the attitude commonly used to develop programmed instruction: if the students fail to learn a concept, the primary suspect is the program, not the students. This attitude reflects the thought that learning is a natural human activity. Most students want to learn, have the required motivation and background to learn, and will learn if given the proper materials and processes. Therefore, if failure occurs, the first place to look is the system.

The design of an educational system is not a simple task. However, such a design is possible, practical, and desirable. The potential gains in student motivation, learning, and ability are well worth the effort required.


  1. Amidon, E. J. and Flanders, N. A., The Role of the Teacher in the Classroom, Amidon Minneapolis, Minn., 1963.
  2. Ausubel, D. P., The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning, Grune and Stratton, New York 1963.
  3. Bloom, B., et al., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain, McKay, New York, 1963.
  4. McKeachie, W. J., Teaching Tips, G. Wahr, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1968.