System Approach

Heim Upp Instructional Design System Approach Robert M Gagné


Systems engineering.

This approach entails analysis of problems and synthesis solutions.  In the analysis phase, a given situation is examined to identify the forces affecting it.  The situation is viewed as a system composed of interconnected parts and related to other systems.  For example a classroom may be portrayed as a system in which teachers collaborate with students in the shared construction of meaning in the context of community expectations under the constrains of limited time and resources.  Analyses are constructed to determine the sorts of knowledge and skills most useful to students and the order in which these should be learned.  In the synthesis phase, modifications in the system (inventions) are designed to overcome forces that interfere with the achievement of the system’s goals.  In classroom, such modifications generally take the form of instructional programs.

 In his book of the Selection and use of Instructional Media, Romiszowski (1997) sums up the following ideas of the system approach, on page 31.  

  Systems          An overall approach which involves tackling problems in a    approach-        disciplined manner keeping priorities in mind.  The sub-system  definition         making up the overall system can be designed, fitted, checked and                        operated so as to achieve the overall objective efficiently                         (Rowntree, 1974).         


Properties of      Inputs, outputs and processes are defined in relation to each  the systems             other. A change in one part will affect all other parts. Each                         decision is justified in terms of pre-planed objectives.  Systems                         models are used which show how each phase fits into the next                         and feedback loops facilitate revision and preview.

                         Environmental constraints which impinge on the school or                          teaching centre are considered. Systematic consideration of the                          suitability of solutions to problems as compared to their                          alternatives is carried out.


Description       The systems approach is a problem-solving method which helps                         to:

1.       Define the problem as clearly as possible.

2.       Analyse the problem and identify alternative solutions.

3.       Select from the alternatives and develop the most viable          solution mix.

4.       Implement and test the solution.

5.       Evaluate the effectiveness and worth of the solution.



Comment          The systems approach is not necessarily a step-by-step process.                          Analysis, synthesis and evaluation are recurring stages repeated                         throughout the process and not  necessarily in the traditional                         format of beginning, middle and end.  Therefore  heuristic                         problem-solving techniques are often better suited than                         algorithmic procedures.  The heuristic process features the                         creative use of general principles rather than the employment of                         specific rules.  Although it does not lead necessarily to a solution                        at all times, it does increase the possibility of arriving at a viable                        solution.



                        Polya´s  approach to mathematical problem solving is an example                         of the systems  approach in practice (see Polya  (1945) How To                         Solve It ).

1.       You must first understand the problem.

2.       You must find the connection between data and the unknown

           and obtain a plan of the solution.

3.       Carry out the plan.

4.       Examine the solution obtained



The system approach had it influence on instructional designing and yielding from these ideas were Bloom’s  ‘Learning for Mastery’ and Keller´s ‘Personalized System of Instruction’.

Bloom  developed a system for mastery learning.  In this system, mastery is defined in terms of specific educational objectives, and mastery of each unit is essential for students before they advance to the next one.


3.4 Bloom mastery learning. 

“Each teacher begins a new term or course with the expectation that about a third of his students will adequately learn what he has to teach.  He expects about a third to fail or just ‘get by’. Finally, he expects another third to learn a good deal of what he has to teach, but not enough to regard them as a ´good student’ (Bloom, Hastings, Madaus, 1971, p.,43)

  Bloom considered these expectations, built upon the normal curve, as the most wasteful and destructive aspect of the  educational system.  He believed that most students, or about 90%, could master what is to be taught.  The basic instructional task was to define the course into educational units and find methods and material to help the students to reach the set level.  Then the student would be tested with a formative test that would either indicate mastery or emphasise on what was still needed to be learned, to reach the next level. To reach mastery the student needed to get 80 - 90 % right.

Bloom based his theory of Learning for Mastery on Caroll’s model of learning which is:


                        1.Time allowed, 2. Perseverance.

            L =      3.Aptitude, 4.Quality of instruction.

5. Ability to Understand Instruction.



This model testifies that if students are normally distributed with regard to aptitude for some subject and all students are given exactly the same instruction and learning time, then achievement measured when the task is finished will be normally distributed.  Under such circumstances the correlation between aptitude and achievement will be relatively high.  On the contrary, if students are normally distributed with respect to aptitude, but the quality of instruction and time allowed for learning are made suitable for the needs of each learner then most students will achieve mastery in set task. The correlation between aptitude and achievement should advance to zero (Block.,1970).

In developing mastery learning it is essential  to define what mastery is and whether or not a student has attained it. Therefor it is necessary to make a specification of objectives and the contend of instructions, and translate these into evaluation procedure. The evaluation is both formative and summative.  Given a description of  the learning task for each unit, a constructed brief diagnostic progress test, a formative test, is given to determine which of the unit’s tasks have or have not been mastered.  Frequent formative evaluation tests pace the student’s learning  and help them to put forward necessary effort at the right time.  The main purpose of the formative testing is to observe the learning process not to grate the student’s achievement.  These tests also provide information for the teachers of what instructions need modifications.

The summative evaluation is a general assessment which ‘sums up’ the total achievement in the course and grate the students.

Bloom (1968) suggests that the mastery model to teaching will greatly improve the performance of low - aptitude students and will have a smaller effect on high - aptitude students.  Because of individualised classes give students the time and instruction they individually need, the model suggests, high levels of achievement should be reacted by all students not only a few.

 Another plan for mastery learning called Personalised System of Instruction was developed by Keller and his colleges Assi, Bori and Sherman when they were developing a new department of psychology in the university of Brasilia.  PSI or Kellers Plan as it is sometimes called, was developed for higher education whereas Blooms mastery was to accomplishment mastery learning in the schoolroom.


3.5 Kellers Plan.

 This system is derived from the behaviourists reinforcement psychology and with Skinners ideas of teaching machines and programmed instructions.  The group had in mind that students would perform better if they found satisfaction in their work.  They meant that positive consequences (instructors praise, good grades, feeling of achievement) were more important than the negative one (boredom, failure or other forms of punishment). The plan they developed consists of five main elements:


                   1.  Mastery criteria,

                   2.  Self pace,

                   3. Stress upon the written word,

                   4. The use of proctors

                   5. Lectures used for motivation rather than sources of information.


1. PSI course is divided into units and students have to show a mastery of the unit to

    be able to go ahead. The mastery level is usually set at 85 - 100% result.  After

    studying for a unit, students are assessed by the proctors and if they fail to reach  the

     mastery level the students try again until they pass.

2. Students are allowed to study at their own pace and no restrain on the students    study time. The student can take the unit quiz when he is prepared to show mastery on the subject.  If he fails it will not be held against him, and he will be able to repeat it whenever he is ready.

3. Stress upon the written word is another factor in PSI. The course is based upon a standard textbook, journal articles and other reading.  The course has a study guide.   A typical guide would consist of, an introduction, statements of objectives, procedure, study questions and supplementary material  decided by the course design.

4. The use of proctors is also specific for PSI.  Proctors are undergraduate students who have successfully finished the course and are aware of the problems and questions that new students in the course come across with.  Their job is to assist the students, score their quiz and react as a feedback to the instructor of the course in general.

5. The lectures in the PSI plan are not for instructional purpose but for enrichment and   to provide inspiration.  The instructor might have a lecture when a certain number of students have passed certain number of units.


The effect of PSI courses has been measured in many ways.  Kulik, Kulik and Smith 1976 reviewed some studies which investigated PSI.  They asked if PSI was effective regarding:


1. End of course performance.

2. Retention

3. Transfer

4. Attitudes


They found out:

1. End of course performance.  Some college studies showed that 38 out of 39 performed better with PSI method than the conventional ones.  An average student who would score 50% under conventional method would score 75% under PSI.  In a meta analysis conducted by Kulik, Kulik and Choen, the result of comparison between conventional teaching and PSI showed that 48 out of 61 studies reported statistically significant difference in favour of PSI.  In the typical PSI class in this set of studies the final examination average was 73,6; in the typical conventional class the average was 65,9.  The difference between PSI and conventional classes was significant at a very high level of confidence, t(47) = 12,04, p < .0001.

2. Retention. In the research of Kulik, Kulik and Smith 1976, 9 studies investigated retention over intervals ranging from 3 weeks to 15 months.  In each of the studies the PSI students performed better than the students who had traditional  lectures.  These 9 studies strongly suggested that PSI promotes more than rote memorisation, it does not only help to learn factual information but also the meaningful application and concepts.

3. Transfer. If students learning under PSI plan later join a course taught traditionally, they are more likely to perform better than those that have not had any PSI experience.  Studies done on transfer show that PSI students learn deeper than rote memorisation.  This has lead to the hypotheses of that a) sequence learning make PSI students more advanced than others, b) PSI provides pleasant first encounters with the subject and helps to build the student’s sense of  competence in a discipline c) students pick up good study habits in PSI courses, and learn how to study independently (Kulik, Kulik, Smith., 1976, p.,24).

4. Attitude.  Most of the investigation found that students react favourably to PSI.  One or two out of 50 in a class react negatively to a PSI course.  In Kulik,Kulik and Cohen 1979 meta analysis, 10 out of 11 rated in favour of overall PSI  quality, 8 out of 8 in favour of learning, 6 out of 8 in favour of enjoyment and 7 out of 8 in favour of  workload (p.,312). What it was that made PSI more effective rather than the conventional learning was, according to Kulik, Kulik and Smith 1976, was: 1. Small units of work, 2. Immediate feedback at every step, 3. A requirement of mastery at every step.  Other not as crucial factors were:  4. Interaction with proctors, 5: Self pacing, 6. Absence  of regular lectures.


According to Bloom (1968) nearly all students can achieve mastery of material in a course given enough time and quality of instruction that they need.  Teaching for mastery raises the overall level of achievement and reduces variations of performance.  The strongest influence of mastery teaching is for the weaker students.  Mastery learning has shown that student's performance rises and students have a successful and rewarding experience learning under mastery conditions rather than the traditional methods.



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