The Systems Approach: An Introduction

Charles E. Wales

Individualized Instruction in Engineering Education, 1974, Chapter 2

Lawrence P. Grayson and Joseph M. Biedenbach, Editors

American Society For Engineering Education


In industry, the process of innovation may take seven years or less from idea to wide - spread adoption. In education the same process usually involves 25 to 50 years because typically an idea is generated and tried, it flounders and lies dormant, is rediscovered, and finally begins to be applied on a large scale. Two of the earliest attempts to use individualized instruction occurred in 1922 and 1926. By the middle 1930's both uses were dropped. Since these first attempts occurred about fifty years ago, one might expect that the time for individualized instruction had come -- and it appears that it has.

Although many faculty are still unaware of the individualized instruction movement, it is growing rapidly, taking a variety of forms in a variety of disciplines, including engineering. While the current growth began with work in botany and psychology, the strongest effort appears to be in teacher education, where there is a vigorous drive to convert all college work to an individualized pattern. 1

The number of journal articles, workshops and conference sessions devoted to this topic is a measure of the high level of interest in individualized instruction that exists among engineering educators. This interest is important because engineers, by the nature of their education, have the potential to make a unique contribution to the movement, a contribution through the use of a systems approach -- which is the basis for developing individualized instruction. Since a systems design which considers the interaction of all factors is a way of life for engineers, they should and must be involved in this movement so they can help other faculty who do not have this insight. The purpose of this book is to help engineering educators do just that -- get involved in individualized instruction, so all disciplines can make the most of this important "new" educational innovation.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the role the engineer can play in this work is to examine the way in which the systems design process might be applied to a technological problem and then show how this process can be adapted for an educational systems design. To begin, suppose you have accepted a job as part of a task force of professionals who have been asked to design a system which will meet the people-transportation problems we face in the decade ahead. While a transportation system (of sorts) exists now, and it does function, it is really a conglomeration of traditional modes mixed with some new technology, and is not a carefully designed system which is likely to meet the future needs of people. In all probability the first step your task force will take is to define the nature of the problem they have been asked to solve. This is likely to involve gathering information about what the transportation system is supposed to do and the constraints which will limit the design. In fact, the group would probably want answers to a series of questions such as the following.

1. Where are these people going?

2. Where do they begin their trip?

3. What practical constraints must be considered;

  1. The number of people involved?
  2. The time and money available to plan and implement the systems design?

4. What research or theoretical principles should be considered in designing this system?

After these factors are considered the group might decide to generate possible solutions for their problem beginning with a list of transportation alternates such as walk, bicycle, auto, car pool, bus (Volkswagen or Greyhound), streetcar, interurban, train, airplane (Beech 99 to Boeing 747), helicopter, boat, etc. Then, the group might begin to consider ways in which they could organize these alternates into a transportation network. The constraints begin to play an important role at this point. Whatever system is devised, for example, must take into account the fact that people have different transportation needs, that is, in general each person will begin his trip at a different location and each may have a different destination. Furthermore, each person may have a different need for speed, food, or service. The final answer will depend on factors such as these as well as on the correct application of the relevant sociological, psychological, and engineering principles. These will be applied as the task force proceeds through the detailed analysis, synthesis and evaluation of their transportation system.

An Educational Systems Design

Now let us see how this systems approach can be applied to the education process. Sup- pose you have accepted a job as part of a task force which has been asked to design an educational system. Although the existing educational system does function, many people believe that like our transportation system, education is a conglomeration of traditional modes mixed with some new technology, and is not a carefully designed system which is likely to meet the needs of people in the decade ahead. To accomplish its work, the task force plans to proceed with a systems design approach.

The first step the group is likely to take is to define the nature of the problem it has been asked to solve. The gathering information step in this process can be expected to involve a series of questions comparable to those asked earlier.

1. Where are the students going, i.e., what skills should they have when they complete the program?

2. Where do the students begin their trip, i.e., what mental, physical, or affective skills do they have (or should they have) before they begin?

3. What practical constraints must be considered?

a. How many people will take this program?

b. How much time and money can be spent to plan and implement this systems design?

4. What research or theoretical principles should be considered in designing this system?

Where Are They Going?

Before the task force can generate reasonable possible solutions for this problem they must define the goals of the program. In our transportation analogy the general goal was to move people, but the systems design would be tested against more specific objectives such as can we successfully move person A from x to y and person B from r to s? The same is true in an educational systems design; the system will be tested against specific objectives, which means that we must have a detailed description of the skills the students should command at the end of the program. One aspect of these goals will be a syllabus of subject matter concepts the student is expected to learn. But there should be more. One additional aspect that must be considered is the type of Intellectual Operations the student is expected to demonstrate when he works with the subject matter. One way to define these intellectual Operations (2) is presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Intellectual Operations

A. Intellectual Situations

1. Single-Answer Problems, Convergent Thinking

2. Open-Ended Problems, Divergent Thinking, Design or Decision-Making

B. Intellectual Modes

1. Analysis

2. Synthesis

3. Evaluation

C. Intellectual abilities

1. Recall

2. Manipulate

3. Translate

4. Interpret

5. Predict

6. Choose


To make their goals explicit, the team should define the specific observable behaviors the student will use to demonstrate that he has achieved what is expected. If the focus of the course is on the lowest Intellectual Abilities, such as recall and manipulation, the objectives may simple call for the multiple choice identification of facts, concepts or principles. If "Choose" is the goal, a test might take the form of single-answer problems. A sample set of the type of content-performance objectives the team might prepare for each concept taught is illustrated in Table 2.

Table 2: Example of Content-Performance Objectives for Intellectual Abilities

At the end of a period of study, each student should be able to:

Intellectual Ability


Recall: Write concept X.
Manipulate: Restate concept X in a new form
Translate: Convert concept X from verbal to graphical or symbolic form
Interpret: State the results derived from the use of concept X.
Predict: State the expected effect of concept X.
Choose: Independently select concept X and use it to solve a single- answer problem.

If the goals of the program include professional level skills, the team will prepare another set of content-performance objectives which define the expected behavior of the student when he performs an analysis, synthesis, evaluation or one of the other steps in the decision-making process. An example of such objectives is given in Table 3.

Table 3: Example of Content-Performance Objectives for Intellectual Modes

Intellectual Mode

Action with an open-ended problem

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, or designs.

A complete set of these objectives defines the goals of the system; therefore, they are fundamental to the design process.

Where Do They Begin?

The present educational system does make some attempt to sort students on the basis of entrance examinations or special discipline exams. The information provided by these exams is usually used to determine the point at which a student enters a sequence of courses in English, math or chemistry. However, even with this sorting there still is tremendous variability in the backgrounds and abilities of the students who enter a given class. Therefore, just as a successful transportation system must consider the starting point of each passenger, an educational systems design must consider the starting point of each student. One way to approach this task is to carefully define the prerequisite skills required for each of the content-performance objectives defined earlier. The importance of this work is described by Gagné who said:

The results showed that the learning of 'higher-level' principles was dependent on the mastery of prerequisite 'lower-level' principles in a highly predictable fashion...It is only when such prerequisite concepts have been mastered that a principle can be learned with full adequacy. Otherwise, there is the danger that the conceptual chain, or some parts of it, will become merely a verbal chain, without the full meaning that inheres in a well-established principle. It is unfortunately true that inadequate principles can be learned. 3



To help the teacher develop the psychological organization of the subject matter required at this point Gagné suggests the following plan of attack:

If problem solving is to be done with physical science, then the scientific principles to be applied to the problem must be previously learned; if these principles in turn are to be learned, one must be sure there has been previous acquisition of relevant concepts; and so on. Thus, it becomes possible to 'work backward' from any given objective of learning to determine what the prerequisite learnings must be; if necessary, all the way back to simple verbal associations and chains.3

The use of this approach is critical to the design process. Not only must the task force identify the prerequisite skills required for success, but students must be pretested to insure that they have these skills. If the system is to be complete, the team also must be prepared to help those students who do not have appropriate skills to get back on track.

Practical Constraints

The task force next must consider the practical constraints which will limit what they can do; for example, how many people are likely to take this program, what material already exists, how much must be developed, what technology is available, how much time and money can be invested in the development, and is expert help required and available? Since many faculty members already have implemented a variety of systems in classes that vary from 500 or more students (Audio-Tutorial instruction) to classes of 30 or less (Guided Design), it seems clear that given the proper encouragement by administrators, colleagues and students, the job can be done by the faculty who now teach in the system.

Theoretical Principles

To continue with their systems design, the task force must consider the theoretical principles that apply to the teaching-learning process. Since they are dealing with an educational system, the pertinent principles should come from psychological research on education. One relevant research effort is described in a book titled Mastery Learning (4) by James H. Block. The results of this research show that five factors which affect learning are the time allowed, the quality of instruction, and the student's perseverance, aptitude, and ability to understand the instruction. Time appears to be an extremely important factor. If the length of time allowed for learning is fixed, as it usually is, the student's grades may well be normally distributed, which reflects the fact that people learn at different rates. If sufficient time is allowed, the research shows that over 90% of the students can achieve an A or B grade. The quality of instruction and the student's ability to understand the instruction have a similar effect; the better the material suits the student's needs, the higher the grades. Where students have some choice over what courses they study, aptitude does not seem to be a problem. And if time and quality instruction are present, most students can be motivated to persevere.

This research has convinced many faculty that they should use mastery testing or competency/performance-based education (C/PBE). This approach is based on the content-performance objectives described earlier. Modules of instructional material are prepared so the student can begin where he needs to begin and move at his own pace. In addition, students are tested and retested until they demonstrate competency with each module and then they are allowed to move on to the next unit of material.

To use the C/PBE approach the teacher must prepare a variety of forms for each examination, which involves a substantial amount of work. There are, however, offsetting advantages for the teacher. With C/PBE, for example, the anxiety that often accompanies the testing process is reduced; if a student fails an examination, his career is not threatened nor is he flunked out, he simply restudies and takes another test. One effect of this process is to shift the basis for success from outguessing the instructor to understanding the subject matter - which creates a whole new relationship between the teacher and the student. In addition, the students can study at their own pace, moving faster when it is possible to do so, and taking more time when it is needed. The students take exams when they feel they are ready, not on arbitrary dates, so problems of illness and external events are reduced or eliminated. By succeeding, students are led to believe that they can master a subject, instead of settling for a C or D grade. This can change their whole attitude toward education.

The concept of C/PBE is quite valuable to a systems design approach because it not only results in better prepared students, but the problems the students have provide the information that is needed to develop and perfect both the subject matter materials and the operation of the system. Thus, if the student fails to learn what is expected, the teacher looks first at what the student 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 the teacher is sure it was not the system which failed the student.

A second area of educational research pertinent to this systems design is that concerned with the psychology of the teaching-learning process. One set of Psychological Principles (5) which has proved to be useful appears in Table 4.

Table 4: A Set Of Psychological Principles

  1. Guide the student as he learns to perform a given task: Model, supervise, prompt, provide objectives and organizers, relate to real work, help him evaluate his own performance.
  2. Provide for Practice: Keep him active, pace his work, vary the context.
  3. Evaluate, Give Feedback and Reinforce the correct action.
  4. Motivate: Encourage, show the value of the desired performance.
  5. Individualize so each student can learn at his own pace.

These Principles will be particularly important to the task force when they begin to generate possible solutions for their system. The task force, for example might ask, how well does the traditional large class lecture satisfy each of these Psychological Principles? Their answer may be that the lecture can motivate, and good lectures should occasionally provide this motivation, but the lecture cannot supervise trials, give immediate feedback, reinforce or individualize. The continued application of these Principles to a variety of teaching-learning activities can be expected to lead the task force toward a system based on individualized instruction, which includes the following components.

1. Self-Paced Instruction

Which allows the student to move at a pace which suits his ability and provides for the environmental factors which are likely to affect his performance: illness, love, personal problems, finances.

2. Competency-Based Instruction

Which provides the student with the diagnostic-progress information he needs to finally learn what is expected.

3. New Teaching-Learning Activities

Programmed instruction, Audio-Tutorial instruction, closed circuit TV, computer assisted instruction, contract learning, modules, and/or the open classroom: which make it easier for the student to learn what is expected.

If professional level goals are specified for the course, the task force may decide that only through individualized instruction can they achieve subject matter objectives outside of class, in order to free class time for the student-faculty and student-student contact required to develop analysis, synthesis, devoted to Guided Design projects, case studies, simulation games, special projects, seminars, or internship type experiences.

With all these factors accounted for, the task force should be ready to proceed with the detailed design of their system. At this point it seems reasonable to assume that what they design is likely to involve:

We have now completed a quick tour of the way in which the systems design process might be applied to education. The chapters which follow will show how a variety of engineering educators have implemented these ideas to produce better education for their students. The background of educational principles you need to learn to join in this work is not very great. We hope this book will stimulate your interest in studying these principles and applying them in your classroom.


  1. Phi Delta Kappa Journal, Vol. LV, No. 5 January 1974
  2. Wick, John W., Educational Measurement, Charles Merrill Publishing, Columbus, OH 1973
  3. Gagne, Robert M., The Conditions of Learning, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, New York, NY, 1970
  4. Block, James H., Mastery Learning Theory and Practice, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, New York, NY, 1971
  5. Wales, C and Stager, R, Educational Systems Design, published by the authors, 1973