Structure in College Course Design and Facilitation

This post is based on a presentation that I gave at a philosophy of education conference (I gave it along with a student, Michal West, who unfortunately was unable to present.) This is why it has been written in a formal way and with formal citations and so forth. 

In what follows I describe what was to me a new insight that there really wasn't that big of a difference between teaching styles that emphasize student-chosen course requirements (student-centered) and those that emphasize instructor-chosen course requirements (instructor-centered). I had hoped to point out how student-centered courses were preferable, but realized that both methods could be helpful for promoting student learning and growth. I also realized that both styles could easily drift too far in their respective directions and become either controlling or chaotic.

In Figure 1, below, I hoped to put the humanistic teacher Carl Rogers on one of the leftmost notches in a magical zone of student freedom. Then I wanted to put the behaviorist teacher Fred Skinner on the far right. But when I examined their practices, they occupied the middle notches--to the left and right, respectively.

Below is a more detailed breakdown.

FIGURE 1: The Structure Continuum

Degrees of Structure (from High to Low)


Rigid classrooms have clear and inflexible boundaries. All learning objectives, course materials, activities, deadlines, and assessments are determined in advance. These are applied to all students without discrimination. Questions from students, unless anticipated in advance and put into a Frequently Asked Questions handout, are forbidden. Dialogue or discussion are also forbidden. Teacher adheres to the Rigid course structure by means of punishment, which is often called discipline. It is the classroom run as prison ward.


Critical classrooms have boundaries, but are less transparent about them than rigid classrooms. This gives the illusion of flexibility. Critical teachers indicate class boundaries by embarrassing, humiliating, and criticizing students. In a rigid classroom, a student who forgets homework loses 20 points or fails (disciplinary control). The same student may be given a chance to make it up in a critical classroom, but they would also be called “lazy,” “irresponsible,” “good-for-nothing,” and so on (i.e., ideological control; See Whitehead, 2017). Critical classrooms communicate that a student’s self-esteem is to be tied to their achievement. Good people get A’s; bad people get F’s and are branded as failures (it is telling that the lettered grade scale conveniently skips over “E,” for which an equally hurtful slogan is hard to find).

Rule-bound (Non-negotiable)

Like Rigid classrooms, Nonnegotiable Rule-bound classrooms have clear boundaries. Rule-bound classrooms are different in that rules can be changed, but only by teacher. If students are struggling with Chapter 4, then teacher may choose to spend an extra few class-periods before moving onto Chapter 5.

Rule-bound (Negotiable)

Negotiable Rule-bound classrooms are as their Non-negotiable counterpart, except that students have a say in redesign decisions. 


Students are given full freedom to do as they wish, including the option of doing nothing. They are given full access to materials (including teacher) and freedom to design activities, assessments, or objectives as they see fit.


Students are given the freedom to do as they wish, including the option of doing nothing. They may be given access to materials, but they are on their own in doing so. There is no accountability for students or teacher at the end of the term, and no contact with teacher.


In the first three instructional styles (right half of Figure 1), the instructor decides all course outcomes, materials, activities, and assessments. Rigid and Critical classrooms are designed based on precedent, and are therefore inflexible. Non-negotiable Rule-bound classrooms are subject to change based on the instructor's observation and evaluation. In the latter three (left half of Figure 1), the instructor gives structural design over to students with greater to lesser accountability and consultation.

If it may be said that learning outcomes are important in general, and that there are established methods of achieving them, then students would benefit from higher course structure (Non-negotiable, Critical, or Rigid). There is, however, disagreement about the generalizability of learning objectives and how they are best facilitated. This is why philosophers, theoreticians, and educationalists have so much to say. For three centuries Alfie Kohn (2018) has gathered evidence against such structure, just as Rogers (Rogers & Coulson, 1986), Postman (Postman & Weingarter, 1971), Goodman (1964), Gatto (2017), Illich (2012), and others have done during their time. The final verdict on generalizability of course outcomes and activities will have to wait.

If the extremes in course structure are discarded—from an indifferent instructor who abandons their class to strict authoritarian instructor who carries a leather switch or wooden paddle—the structure continuum shrinks by two. Courses can feature high structure (Critical or Non-negotiable Rule-bound) or low structure (Free or Negotiable Rule-bound). Caricatures of instructional styles can be drawn—from Skinner’s (1958) teaching machines to Rogers’s nondirectional tutor (Tennenbaum, 1961)—but the chasm between is much smaller than it seems. This similarity is best achieved through diagram.

Diagramming the Structure of Six Common Instructional Styles

Teaching Machines: Fred Skinner and Behaviorism

Fred Skinner was an experimental psychologist, most notably responsible for the theory of operant conditioning as he applied it in experiments with animals. His achievement was the practice of psychology as an experimental science, every bit as rigorous, systematic, and unbiased as geology or modern physics. His model for conditioning human behavior is still used everywhere from psychiatric hospitals to schools. 

Like his behaviorist predecessors John Watson and Edward Thorndike, Skinner wished to apply experimental psychology to learning. In the laboratory, Skinner used a single-participant experimental design, which is where the experimenter works with one subject (such as a pigeon) at a time. This allowed the experimenter to supply reinforcement and punishment immediately after a target behavior is emitted. Too great a delay between behavior and consequence reduces the strength of the conditioning procedure. To implement this into a classroom would require a separate teacher or tutor for each student—an unlikely solution for school boards. Skinner proposed teaching machines.

Structure with Skinner’s Teaching Machines

Without getting into the technical details of the apparatus, we can diagram teaching machines on the structure continuum. We can do so by examining the care with which Skinner describes teaching machines. He says, for example, 

An appropriate teaching machine will have several important features. The student must compose his response rather than select it from a set of alternatives, as in a multiple-choice self-rater. One reason for this is that we want him to recall rather than recognize—to make a response as well as see that it is right. […] Another reason is that effective multiple-choice material must contain plausible wrong responses, which are out of place in the delicate process of “shaping” behavior because they strengthen unwanted forms. (1958, p. 970)

It is clear that Skinner has not merely programmed the teaching machine and set it loose. He hovers over it, making adjustments here and there, and examines the product.

Skinner has a clear and steadfast idea of what learning is, but his instructional practice is more flexible. He is careful not to consult the student in the process, but he very much takes their perspective and perception into consideration; his methods are non-negotiable.

FIGURE 2: B.F. Skinner’s Teaching Machines on the Structure Continuum

Learner-Centered: Carl Rogers

The next learning theory comes from American counseling psychologist and lifelong educator, Carl Rogers: persons-centered or nondirectional teaching. Based on his observations in individual and group therapy, it was Rogers’s opinion that no person can teach another person anything worth knowing. While such direct instruction might appear to work during the short term, long-term observations show that learning of this sort fails to have any lasting significance. If it does have lasting significance, then it is usually at the expense of the student, such that the student would have been better off without it. Because Rogers’s learning theory is so well-known and widely discussed, a discussion of its details will be skipped. For further reading, see Rogers and Coulson (1986).

Like Skinner, Rogers was well-known for his meticulousness. He evaluated all of his procedures, and his techniques were under constant adjustment. In the classroom, he experimented with structure. Earlier in his career, he gave students liberty to design any and all learning objectives and activities. An example of wide freedom is told in (a beautifully well-written) narrative form from the perspective of a student, Samuel Tennenbaum (1961). An example which displays greater structure is given by Rogers (1986). In Rogers’s semi-structured classroom, students are given a list of requirements, each with its own thorough description. On the surface and by name, these “requirements” indicate expectations teacher has given to student. In Rogers’s own words, however, each requirement is a way of telling the student “Do exactly what you wish to do in this course, and say and write exactly what you think and feel” (1986, p. 73). He reasons that “freedom seems less frustrating and anxiety-laden when it is presented in somewhat conventional sounding terms as a series of ‘requirements’” (p. 73).

Structure in Rogers’s Learner-Centered Classroom

Between these two examples, the structure of Rogers’s classroom can be diagrammed between “Free” and “Non-negotiable Rule-bound.” There is a temptation to extend the left-most boundary to include “Abandoned,” as Rogers admitted that he had no interest in being a teacher (1961). But he was always present, available, and remained steadfast to his three rules for facilitating significant learning. These rules are the congruence of the facilitator, acceptance of the student, and the use of empathic listening. To this end, he was as accountable to his principles as the experimental scientist, above.


FIGURE 3: Carl Rogers’s Learner-centered Approach on the Structure Continuum


Insight-based Learning: Gestalt Theory in Education

Though peculiar in name, the learning theory promoted by Gestalt psychologists can be seen as the first in the long and prosperous line of cognitive and transformative learning theories.

Gestalt psychologists understand that human experience occurs in meaningful wholes, not as isolated stimuli. German psychologist Max Wertheimer inspired the Gestalt movement after the publication of his article on apparent motion (1912). 

Before his death in 1943, Wertheimer wrote Productive Thinking. For Wertheimer, thinking is productive when it employs creativity or uses critical thinking skills to solve problems. Wertheimer compared productive thinking to reproductive thinking, for which he gave logic and rote-memorization as examples. Reproductive thinking inhibits understanding and impairs the student’s ability to draw conclusions in real-life circumstances.

Other Gestalt psychologists, most notably Wolfgang Köhler, also examined the learning process. Based on his research with chickens and chimpanzees, Köhler observed what he would name insight-based problem-solving. An insight is the recognition than a relationship exists between objects or actions, and this can be used to solve previously unsolved problems. When chimpanzees stacked boxes in order to reach the bananas at the ceiling, they were solving their problem using insights. 

Structure in Insight-based Classrooms

We will use the insight-based problem-solving protocols outlined in Köhler’s observations with chimpanzees. The objective was for the chimpanzees to get the bananas, which were many feet higher than the chimpanzees could reach. To solve their problem, the chimpanzees would have to devise a strategy for reaching them. Around the room were objects such as fruit crates and poles. No tool by itself was sufficient for solving the problem. The tools had to be used together. Chimpanzees were given no instruction.

The classroom set-up has a clear objective (bananas), but one that is uniquely appropriate to chimpanzees (supposing the cliché holds). This is to say that there was a clear intrinsic motivation for meeting the objective. Little insight would have been employed to reach a filter of used coffee grounds. 

The means for achieving the learning objective are less clear. The chimpanzees are free to reach their objective in any way possible, including throwing the fruit crate at the ceiling until the bananas either fall or are smashed. Therefore, Köhler’s classroom is not rigid. 

We can also conclude that his classroom is not critical. It is evident from his writing that he admires the chickens and chimpanzees he works with. Furthermore, it is uncertain what sort of verbal criticism would be most hurtful to a chimpanzee.

On the opposite side of the Classroom Structure Continuum we can rule out abandonment, because Köhler keeps a watchful eye on the chimpanzees.

Köhler’s classroom lands somewhere within the remaining three structures as a little of each. The classroom has nonnegotiable rules such as gravity and the limited utility of boxes and sticks. The chimpanzee must operate within these limitations. Of the many combinations of solutions possible, the chimpanzee is free to use whichever they wish (negotiable rules). Finally, the chimpanzee is free to give up or ignore the bananas.


FIGURE 4: Insight-Based Learning on the Structure Continuum



Radical Pedagogy: Paulo Freire’s Cultural Circles

With a growing emphasis on social justice, equality, equity, and so on in education, Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy (2013, 2018) has remained relevant.

Freire was a lawyer and professor in Recife, which is an agrarian community on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. In the 1940s and 50s, Freire taught literacy to farmers so that they could vote to protect their harvests from being taken by bureaucrats in the city. Convention then (and now) told Freire that adults cannot learn to read; they have passed the critical point of learning how. Convention also said that literacy takes five to ten years. With Freire’s guidance, the farmers learned to read in fewer than 60 days. The literacy education was so politically subversive that Freire was exiled from Brazil (at which point he was hired to teach education to students at Harvard University.

Freire’s literacy classes were not compulsory the way primary and secondary schools are. This is a significant detail for understanding radical pedagogy: learning cannot be compulsory. Students who appeared in Freire’s classrooms were there by choice, and their learning objectives were self-determined.

Rather than begin with phonemes and morphemes, which are the basic units of language, Freire began with what he called cultural circles. A thorough description of cultural circles can be found in Freire (2013). The purpose of cultural circles was for students to practice recognizing the difference between nature and culture. It is by nature that humans eat and drink. It is by culture that humans eat polenta (or hummus) and drink Malbec (or Tempranillo). Literacy, Freire demonstrated, is cultural. Just like learning to eat Mediterranean food or drink Mediterranean wine, a farmer can learn to read and write.


Literacy lessons began after the cultural circles. Students were not hampered by the schedule, but regularly skipped far ahead by reading and writing phrases and sentences convention says they shouldn’t be able to.

Structure in Freire’s Radical Classroom

Freire used a previously designed set of cards for his cultural circles (which can be found in Freire, 2012). These cards, along with literacy lessons, represent Non-negotiable Rules.

The students were responsible for the learning objectives, not teacher. This represents a measure of freedom. It was the combination of student goals (become literate) and instructor techniques (cultural circle, lessons) that created Freire’s radical classroom.

Had Freire kept the nature and culture cards in his satchel until a student asked to see them, we could extend the structure of Freire’s classroom into the Free zone. Since he produced that at each meeting, his classroom may be diagrammed as Non-negotiable and Negotiable Rule-bound, with an emphasis on the latter.


FIGURE 5: Freire’s Radical Pedagogy on the Structure Continuum


Lecture and then Test: Conventional Instruction

In the above examples, none give any emphasis to verbal instruction. Skinner relies on reinforcement to shape emitted responses from students; Rogers supplies a set of rules and lets students find their own way; Köhler sets up a problem for students (chimpanzees) to solve; and Freire is armed with helpful activities (cultural circles, syntax tutorials, and so on). Though these lay the foundation for contemporary theories of learning, we do not find in them the Medieval (pre-printing press) and Ancient Greek (where the city would gather to listen) of oration. This model is valued in academe, and can be found at all levels of education.

In the Lecture – Test model, teacher gives long speeches which cover information—usually limited to the contents of a textbook chapter. The speeches are judged by the volume of information communicated and their level of entertainment. Students are periodically tested, quizzed, and exam-ed over the lecture materials, and are encouraged to make changes based on the feedback they receive (i.e., their grade on the test, quiz, or exam).

Structure in the Lecture-Test Classroom

Lecturers are free to revisit material on which students have tested poorly, and may thereby exercise some course flexibility (Non-negotiable Rule-bound). But the model is primarily Critical, and students leave class with a grade—A students (“Great job!”), B students (“Good job.), and so on. Just as some teachers can exercise a measure of freedom, others can exercise Rigidity by expelling students or smacking fingers with a yard stick.


FIGURE 6: Lecture – Test Classrooms on the Structure Continuum

Comparing Structure across Models of Learning 

With the exception of the Lecture – Test model, the theories of learning do more converging than diverging in terms of structure. This convergence can be seen in Figure 7. What they have in common is the instructor’s willingness to make changes to the rules (expectations, outcomes, assessments, and so on) based on feedback from the classroom. When looking only at structure, the fundamental differences between learning theories are what qualifies as data for feedback, which can either come from teacher insight (as with Skinner’s teaching machines), or combined insights from teacher and student (as with Rogers’s Learner-centered approach). Instructor insights for course structure are present in each of the models, including the Learner-centered approach. Though Rogers has given considerable freedom from the student, he has still gone through the trouble to organize course materials, listing requirements, and participating in the learning process as it unfolds in the classroom.



FIGURE 7: Five Learning Theories on the Structure Continuum



Summary of Structure Continuum in Education

After diagramming six theories of learning, models which span the breadth of the author’s imagination for classroom structure, it is apparent that learning theories share much in common when it comes to structuring the learning experience. The most significant conclusion is that the instructor’s job is not finished once the course begins—they must continuously watch, evaluate, and assess how the course is going, and make changes for the purposes of improvement. Where learning theories don’t overlap, their difference is only with respect to whether students are capable of generating insights or contributing to course objectives, materials, and so on.

To state this conclusion in a negative way: each of the learning theory representatives are careful not to Abandon (complete lack of structure) or ignore (Rigid structure) their students. That is to say, a teacher is in good company when they observe their courses and make changes when necessary. A teacher has drifted into obsolescence when they are aloof from their courses, or make changes and are indifferent to what happens.



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