If you could start a new university from scratch, how would you do it? You have been tasked with deciding every detail of the academic program — the major requirements, the design of the courses, the class sizes, the weekly schedules. Imagine being unconstrained by tradition, administration, or money. What would you change, if you could?
That was the amazing opportunity offered to four psychologists — Rodolpho Azzi, Carolina Martuscelli Bori, Fred S. Keller, and John Gilmour Sherman — in the early 1960s. The government of Brazil was creating a new university in the country’s capital, Brasilia, and the founders had asked Azzi and Bori — then faculty members at the University of Sao Paulo, along with their American colleagues Keller and Sherman — to create a department of psychology. They were given almost total freedom to design the department from the ground up, beginning with an introductory course for 60 students, most of whom were interested in continuing on as psychology majors.
What they came up with was truly radical — ultimately too radical to be sustainable. But their story offers lessons for faculty members today, even though we teach without the freedom to shape so many conditions of our classrooms.
The experiment begins. In the fall of 1964, a new introductory course in psychology was offered at the University of Brasilia with a strange feature: Students would proceed at their own pace. The course material was divided into 49 "units" — each with readings and a study guide, and some with experiments — and students would tackle each unit on their own.
Crucially, they could only move on to the second unit once they had demonstrated mastery of the first. Mastery was determined by tests, and students could take a unit test as many times as necessary, until they passed. Once they did — answered enough answers correctly to demonstrate that they understood the material — they moved to the next unit to begin the process all over again.
In scheduled class time, students were invited to come to the classroom to study — or not. A teaching assistant would be there to help if they came to class, but they could study at home if they preferred. Sometimes lectures and teacher demonstrations were scheduled, but attendance at those was also optional, and such elements were offered only when a sufficient number of students had reached a point in their progress when they could benefit from a lecture or a lab. For the most part, students were on their own, their progress charted by a proctor — an undergraduate TA, essentially — who would go over their tests and determine whether they had mastered the relevant material.
In the syllabus to a version of the course Keller and Sherman gave at Arizona State University the following year, they told students: "At best, you may meet all the 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." A final exam at the end of the semester was worth 25 percent of a student’s final grade. The remainder was based on "the number of units of reading and laboratory work that you have successfully completed during the term."
The early verdict. Students in that first class at Brasilia performed remarkably well. When Keller and Sherman introduced similar courses at Arizona State, they were even more excited by the results and publicized them at conferences and in journals. In the 15 years that followed the initial introduction of PSI — to use the somewhat vague acronym that only sometimes stood for "personalized system of instruction" — it spread like wildfire.
PSI courses were taught at a great number of American institutions, from prestigious universities (MIT, Georgetown) to large state campuses (University of Texas, State University of New York) to small liberal-arts colleges (Bucknell, Kalamazoo). The approach also quickly spread beyond psychology, finding a home in physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and other fields. Georgetown created a Center for Personalized Instruction, directed by Sherman, and the Journal of Personalized Instruction regularly published research on the topic.
Asked to reflect on PSI in 1974, Keller surveyed the terrain and found the successes almost too great to characterize: "The literature on PSI is mounting daily, too rapidly for me to read or to assess, and many interesting things are taking place that may never be reported."
What’s more, as PSI courses spread, research suggested that they were plainly more beneficial than the traditional kind. Study after study found that students learned more in a PSI course. A 1979 meta-analysis of 75 studies concluded that students performed, on average, 8 percentage points better on their final exams in PSI classes than did students in the control classes. That advantage jumped to 14 percentage points when exams were followed up with another exam several months after the courses ended — an indication that PSI was especially helpful with retention of material.
So what happened? If letting students control the pace of their courses led to such clear gains in learning, and if those results were replicable across disciplines and institutions, why don’t we have scores of PSI courses across academe today? Why is PSI mostly forgotten?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the PSI craze petered out, but it seems that the stubborn inertia of educational institutions is mostly to blame. (PSI calls to mind a later trend, competency-based education, but that is more common in schools and online courses than in nonprofit higher education.)
PSI was simply too different from traditional courses. It required students, instructors, and institutions to stray too far from the norm. Writing in 1992, Sherman bitterly complained: "The power, the money, the investment in keeping things as they are may be impossible to overcome. Recommendations may be acceptable only if they don’t change things very much."
Institutional factors may make it impossible for any of us to make our courses self-paced, but I’ve found that looking at some of the old literature that sprung up around PSI can point to some lessons we can take from it today.
Keller, Sherman, Azzi, and Bori knew that they were making a radical break from the normal way of things in the psychology classroom. For one, they were drastically changing the professor’s role. In a 1968 essay called "Good-Bye, Teacher …," published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Keller called attention to the importance of this change. The professor’s "public appearances as classroom entertainer, expositor, critic, and debater no longer seem important," he wrote, and added: "He becomes an educational engineer, a contingency manager, with the responsibility of serving the great majority, rather than the small minority, of young men and women who come to him for schooling in the area of his competence."
Note the emphasis there on "serving" — on the professor’s duty to meet the students’ needs, rather than the other way around. Now think about your own syllabi, about the rules, regulations, and expectations you dictate to your students, and ask yourself: Who’s serving whom here? Some 50 years on, many professors still remain the central figure of their classrooms, the infant whom all of the students fuss over and cater to.
A.J. Dessler, then a professor of space science at Rice University, used what he called "the Keller method" to teach an introductory astronomy course in 1971. Writing about the experience, Dessler noted the contrast with traditional classes in which "lectures are presented at a time and place dictated by a relentless schedule. … The pace through the course is an unyielding lock-step established to fit the mythical ‘average student.’"
Many of us have moved away from designing our courses entirely around lectures, but a "relentless schedule" still dominates our classrooms. Too often, we construct a course calendar before we’ve met our students — and then we stick to it no matter what. What’s more, most courses are still pitched to the mythical average student. With increasing numbers of first-generation students, international students, and English-language learners in college classrooms, can we be sure that our idea of the average student matches up with the people we’re teaching?
Sure, most of us do not have the power to let our students proceed at their own pace. We don’t have a team of TAs ready to go over their latest test and help them study for the next one. Yet, for as much as we’ve learned about teaching and learning over the past few decades, most of our classrooms still operate more or less like the ones we had when we were in college. We cling to a status quo even though it very clearly does not work for everyone. African-American students are still half as likely to graduate in four years as white students are. Fewer than 35 percent of disabled students graduate within eight years. Graduation rates for low-income, first-generation students are still abysmal.
I don’t have any easy tips to suggest. And we’ve already made some progress in recent decades. More and more courses are making use of active-learning strategies than ever before. More professors realize that "continuous exposition by the teacher" is a terrible way to help students learn.
But we still have a long way to go. As ever, we need to see all of our students as individuals with distinct educational backgrounds and capabilities. We need to create spaces in which they feel safe and free to take the kinds of intellectual risks necessary for learning. We need to be flexible enough to adjust to students who do not fit our preconceived notions. Most of all, we need to shape our pedagogy to respond to their learning needs — which, may I remind you, is the point of the whole enterprise.