Personalized System of Instruction (PSI): Concept Definition

The teaching method described above is an example of the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or the Keller Plan. It is distinguished by five features (Keller, 1968, p. 83).

(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"

(This is the ideal. However, the end of a semester at most colleges typically presents an unavoidable practical deadline, and along with it the problem of how to assign a grade. A popular compromise is to assign a grade equivalent for passing a certain number of units by that deadline [Sherman, 1974]. Also, related to this issue, one study showed that an instructor-paced procedure that helped students avoid falling behind, but also allowed then to get ahead, was superior to self-pace by reducing the number of drop-outs in self-pace [Semb, Conyers, Spencer, & Sanchez Sosa, 1975; see also Ross & McBean, 1995].)

(2) "the unit perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded"

(According to Sherman [1974], many PSI instructors have interpreted this as meaning nine out of ten questions answered correctly. Unit tests normally require about 15-20 minutes to complete and should assess the student on every major unit objective in the study guide.)

(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"

(The "written word" typically includes a textbook and a study guide. The study guide "must allow the student to proceed through the textbook and other course material largely on his own and do so successfully" [Sherman, 1974, p 29]. It allows the instructor to "comment on, supplement, or correct the textbook," as well as specify in behavioral terms what the student should be able to do after reading the unit. A "unit" covers about a week's worth of work from the textbook. The size of a unit is limited by the fact that a unit test should assess the student on every major unit objective instead of merely sampling what has been learned.)

(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."

(The suggested ratio of students to proctors is 10:1. "Proctors are typically advanced undergraduates who have taken the course in a previous semester and been selected because of competence, interest and personal qualities which are hopefully attractive or at least not abrasive" [Sherman, 1974, p. 38]. Why doesn't the instructor perform this duty? Keller [1974a] noted that the gap of understanding between the student and the teacher is often very wide; the proctor, with an intermediate level of knowledge, can help bridge this gap, perhaps by finding valid logic in answers that would be overlooked by the instructor and by reformulating written materials in more basic ways that a student might better comprehend.)

Let's look at each of the five features as they relate to your student concerns about our hypothetical college course. First, the go-at-your-own-pace feature allows you to study when it is convenient for you. Should your workload be especially heavy for your other courses, then you can delay your study; but, at those times when your workload is lighter, you can focus all your efforts on this course and move ahead rapidly.

Second, the unit perfection requirement for advance relates to your concern about not being sure about what you did and did not understand after writing your midterms and how that might affect your learning more advanced material for your finals. Should you pass any unit in this course, you will have done so at a 100% correct level; that is, you will have mastered all the unit objectives. In other words, the course is structured such that you cannot move forward until you have fully understood information that is prerequisite to later units. Is this mastery requirement simply a different source of stress? Perhaps, but you are not penalized in any way if you do fail at any point. You simply go back and study, and then try again. Hopefully practice makes perfect.

Third, many of your concerns about lectures are addressed. In fact, you needn't even worry about attending a lecture, the few times they are scheduled, unless you feel motivated to do so. If the lecturer isn't good, if he doesn't entertain you in some way, then forget it. You have nothing to lose.

Fourth, the focus on the written word eliminates miscommunication between you and your instructors. What you need to know is specified in writing in the study objectives. If it's not there, then you don't need to know it. And there can be no question about the content itself, as was the case with your poorly worded notes from the lectures. Even better, difficult text material, which you often skipped over with the intent of asking the instructor or his T.A. about it (but never did), are elaborated in the study guide.

And finally, proctors are a source of on-line help. If you choose to study in class, then they are available for consultation. And, after you write any test, you get to review the answers individually with the proctor. This is the time, while the material is fresh in your mind, when you feel best primed to discuss and defend your answers.

So, as you can see, there are many practical advantages to a PSI course from a student's point of view. What about some of your other concerns about how well you would actually learn in a course like this compared to the traditional format? Is PSI simply an unproved good idea, or is there research demonstrating its effectiveness?