Personalized System of Instruction (PSI): An Example

Suppose you are a university student, a sophomore. After your first year, you have come to expect certain things in your courses. For example, for each of your freshman courses you attended a 50-minute lecture along with a hundred or more other students, three days a week, and two or three times during the semester you wrote an exam. Regarding the lectures, some of them were especially boring, the instructor often rehashing material that you had already read about the night before. Other lectures were incomprehensible, usually because you hadn't prepared. Sometimes you wished the instructor would slow down and re-explain a concept, but you were too shy to request this in front of a hundred other students. Other times you wished the instructor would simply ignore the stupid questions (so long as it wasn't you asking it!), but all your instructors were respectful and took the extra time to answer each and every question, no matter how basic the concept. This is not to say that all your lectures were bad. In fact, some were great, and there were a couple of really entertaining instructors who had the entire class in stitches with their showmanship. But - and you felt embarrassed to about this, having heard a number of derogatory jokes about such narrow-minded students - there were times even during some of these fun lectures when your only thought was: "Do I have to know this for the exam?" And then there was the issue of note-taking - frequently you simply could not write fast enough to keep up with what the instructor was saying, and your notes looked like a scribbled, incomprehensible mess.

Regarding the readings, your textbooks were generally interesting, but you never knew what was really relevant from the instructor's point of view. There were times when you thought you heard an instructor hint at the fact that certain pages were important; so you focused your reading accordingly, only later to discover that the exam did not assess you on that material. The chapters in some of your textbooks were over 50 pages long, which seemed to take forever to read. Consequently, you often skimmed through the material, or worse, you didn't read it at all until a night or two before the exam. There was no where to turn when you didn't understand a passage, and due to time demands, you had no choice but to skip over it and keep your fingers crossed that that material would not appear on the exam

Regarding the exams, each one was stressful, given that it was worth a significant proportion of your final grade. Exams often covered 200 pages or more from your textbook, as well as whatever was presented during lectures. Each exam seemed like an endurance test, some lasting up to three hours. They all tended to be scheduled during the same week, so you ended up cramming for each one. Nevertheless, you did OK, averaging a B, although you were never quite sure why some of your exam answers - which you thought were good answers - were scored incorrect. This was a constant source of stress later in the year, since a working knowledge of the concepts you learned for your midterms was essential to understanding the more advanced material for your final exams.

Today is the first day of classes for your sophomore year. You are attending the introductory lecture of sociology course. The instructor hands out a course outline and asks the class to spend several minutes looking it over. The outline begins as follows:

"This is a course through which you may move, from start to finish, at your own pace. You will not be held back by other students or forced to go ahead until you are ready. At best, you can meet all of your course requirements in less than one semester; at worst, you may not complete the job within that time. How fast you go is up to you.

"The work of this course will be divided into 30 units of content, which correspond roughly to the series of homework assignments and laboratory exercises. These units will come in a definite numerical order, and you must show your mastery of each unit (by passing a "readiness" test or carrying out an experiment) before moving on to the next.

"A good share of the reading for this course may be done in the classroom, at those times when no lectures, demonstrations, or other activities are taking place. Your classroom, that is, will sometimes be a study hall.

"The lectures and demonstrations in this course will have a different relation to the rest of your work than is usually the rule. They will be provided only when you have demonstrated your readiness to appreciate them; no examination will be based on them; and you need not attend them if you do not wish. When a certain percentage of the class has reached a certain point in the course, a lecture or demonstration will be available at a stated time, but it will not be compulsory.

"The teaching staff for your course will include proctors, assistants, and an instructor. A proctor is an undergraduate who has been chosen for his mastery of the course content and orientation, for his maturity of judgment, for his understanding of the specific problems that confront you as a beginner, and for his willingness to assist. He will provide you with all your study materials except your textbooks. He will pass upon your readiness tests as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. His judgment will ordinarily be the law, but if he is ever in serious doubt, he can appeal to the classroom assistant, or even the instructor, for a ruling. Failure to pass a test on the first try, the second, the third, or even later, will not be held against you. It is better that you get too much testing than not enough, if your final success in the course is to be assured..." (Keller, 1968, pp. 80-81)

Later on in the outline you read about how your final grade is determined: 75% is based on the number of units you complete, and 25% is based on your score on a cumulative end-of-term exam (containing questions similar to the readiness tests).

Students in the class finish looking over the outline, and your instructor begins speaking. He advises that you cover two units per week in order to take an A into the final examination, and that you should withdraw if you have not passed the readiness test for Unit 1 after two weeks into the course. He also suggests that you complete assignments during class time, the advantage being that the course proctors, and perhaps even other students, would be present and available for assistance.

Your instructor then distributes the assignment for Unit 1, which covers the first 20 pages in your textbook. The assignment contains unit objectives, expanded discussions of some of the key concepts you will read about, and 30 study questions. He advises that you read the material in such a way as to seek out the answers to the study questions. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the study questions - the content addressed by them forms the basis for the corresponding readiness test. He also notes that, at any point in the course, in order to receive the assignment for the next unit, you always need to pass the readiness test for the current one. And here is a shocker: a pass is 100% correct!

Finally, you are informed that the proctor will oversee you writing the test and immediately afterwards grade it with you present. Should you have answered any question incorrectly, the proctor will ask you to explain your reasoning. You will always be given an opportunity to challenge the scoring of your answers, and the proctor has the authority to revise his or her assessment based upon your oral defense.

What are you to do? The are some things about this course you like, others which you aren't quite so sure about, and yet others that you're pretty sure you don't like. Will you be able to maintain your B average in a course like this? With so few lectures, how are you to learn all this material? This course might be good for memorizing facts, but what about critical thinking? Will it consume all your time at the expense of your other courses? Will you be more likely to forget all these little bits of information once the course is over? A friend of yours is taking another section of the same course, taught in the traditional manner. You are tempted to switch sections, but you are also tempted to remain based upon something else your instructor mentioned at the end of his speech, something about students doing better under this teaching method and saying afterwards that they prefer it.