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Notes Toward A Theory of Evidence-Based Learning (EBL)

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Tuesday, January 13, 2015

This year, AAEEBL is attempting to capture and put forward in conferences the evolution of the eportfolio movement in the U. S. and world-wide.  In our Annual Conference, July 27-30, 2015 in Boston, we invite sessions that illuminate how others are seeing this evolution -- "Moving Beyond One Size Fits All."  The CFP is open for the Annual Conference.  In this blog, I offer a personal view of how I see the movement evolving, toward a framework of Evidence-Based Learning Systems powered by eportfolio technologies. -- tb


Notes Toward A Theory of Evidence-Based Learning (EBL)

Trent Batson


(In 2009, AAEEBL chose the phrase “evidence-based learning” as part of its title.  The rare use of that phrase before 2009 referred to using research on learning to guide one’s teaching – learning designs based on research.  A similar usage developed in medicine – “evidence-based medicine.” 


AAEEBL, instead, uses EBL to refer to a system in which learners learn by gathering evidence of their own work and reflecting on that evidence – this way, the evidence and evidence-gathering is the basis for learning. It is an active engagement with your own process.  At this point in the evolution of the eportfolio movement, EBL seems to be a useful term to develop into a theory that encompasses eportfolio uses and which then can be used to re-structure education). 

Evidence-Based Learning (EBL) is a term used to describe what is now possible:  a lesser focus on the end products of learning and greater focus on the process of learning.  The more we can make the learning process visible through gathering step-by-step evidence, the more we can improve learning.

Easier to Collect Evidence of Learning

Before the Web and digital technologies such as eportfolios, collecting evidence of the process of learning was laborious and difficult.  It was easier to just collect the product – the final assignment or report or test results  -- and assume that learning had occurred (or not).  This may have been all that was practically possible at scale, but at the same time, it is hard to adjust the learning process behind the product if there is no evidence left of what that process was. 


But, with eportfolio and other digital technologies, gathering a full picture of the learning process – or the creation process or discovery process or data gathering process – is now possible.  In addition, the “full picture” is itself a source of learning as learners review the evidence in that full picture and decide how their evidence will be useful to make a case for something, be it a capstone assignment or in support of a job application. 

A New Framework for Learning

Evidence-Based Learning, as I see it, can form the basis for a new framework for learning in the academy, within careers, between periods of enrollment and throughout life.  Learners now have access to technologies to make evidence-gathering relatively easy.  ePortfolio technology has advanced and is available not only to enrolled students but to individuals not currently enrolled.  One can now maintain a portfolio online for a number of different purposes, for learning and assessment while in a program or for personal advancement in a career. 

EBL is not just another term for “eportfolios.”  EBL is a framework for learning that is enabled and energized by eportfolio technology.  ePortfolios are a critical part of EBL, but only a part.  EBL implies a system that involves the whole learner and all learning experiences that are perceived as relevant or potentially relevant to life advancement.  Assessment of prior learning, or “recognition of prior learning” in parts of the world or “prior learning assessment and recognition” in other parts, recognizes the power of evidence.  It is not just time in a course that is the coin of the realm but also evidence of what someone can do.  A big part of EBL is holistic assessment. 

EBL, because it involves collecting evidence as learning is occurring, is necessarily constructivist in orientation.  The evidence-gathering is itself a constructivist approach to learning. 

As the world evolves toward new models of learning in this new environment of abundance of information and knowledge, EBL is a logical outcome, a process that fits the time.  Evidence is multi-modal:  of many types --visual, graphic, text, data – reflecting the reality of today and of many ways of understanding and interpreting those types of evidence. 

As we move invariably toward models based on evidence of achievement, or competence, or learning, we need new theories of learning to understand those new models in order to continue to improve them.  What was actually true for a long time but never fully recognized in our teaching/learning models, should be better understood, more explicit, and should be more fully incorporated into our understanding of learning. 

We need a theory of Evidence-Based Learning (EBL).  Below are notes toward such a theory. 


1.     Learning Starts with Experience.  All learning originates in experience.  This is true of advanced learning in college or in a career as well, albeit the starting point for advanced learning could be listening to an expert in the knowledge domain, a familiar enough scenario.  A learner needs some sort of introductory context, whether based on a lecture, or lived learning experience, to begin the process of learning a new skill, a new concept, or anything else.  However, once the “informational” part of the learning process is over, the “transformational” part begins. This is where the learner must become the active agent in learning.

In this transformational part of the learning process, because of mobile digital technologies, activity in any location can be documented in some way.  Evidence can be collected, uploaded to the learner’s eportfolio, and then it becomes part of the “story” of learning around a particular skill or concept.  Reflecting on this evidence results in perceptions about the learning experience, perceptions that may have begun “in the field,” but which can be extended and deepened through reflection and integration.

Once the learner has developed a perceptual insight into the work she or he is doing, then they have a path to seeing how their experience and perceptions of that experience connects with larger concepts in their field of study or work. 

2.     Ownership:  Students Own The Content of the Course.  The content of a course does not precede the course.  The true content (what is important) is the interaction between teacher and learner during the course and what that interaction produces.  The content, then, is what the learners produce, the mutual construction of new knowledge based on existing concept in the field, as interpreted for this particular interaction. 

In any field, a consensus exists within that knowledge domain.  A teacher interprets some part of that consensus by adapting assignments or projects to the level of the learners.  That teacher may interpret discipline consensus in a particular way.  It is that interpretation and then the derivative course design plus what the students produce within that design that is the content of the course.  “Content” is therefore dynamic and variable, not static. 

3.     Process:  Must Have Evidence Showing Process of Developing Content. Evidence must therefore demonstrate concretely the process of learning.  Like evidence in criminal proceedings, evidence of learning is not a conclusion or a product but is the inspiration for further and deeper interpretation and analysis.  Evidence of learning supports the second phase of developing critical thinking:  building perceptions based on the learning experiences, and evidence gathered, while doing the assignment.  Learners assessing the value of their evidence is the first effort at developing perceptions about the evidence – seeing similarities, seeing what the learner missed the first time around, or what the learner should have done at the time, and other perceptions that become apparent when looking back at evidence.

4.     Variability:  The EBL Process Varies from Learner to Learner.  Learners, either working alone, or in teams, vary in their approach and in their experiences as they work.  With a product focus, this variability would not be a factor, because the product becomes the all – a finished assignment or a test.  But, with a process focus, variabiity must be taken into account.  In fact, how an individual or a team addresses a problem, project or assignment, is key to everything.  Learning is about improving your own process but if we don’t capture that process how can we improve it?  This is why EBL is so important. 

5.     Visibility:  Seeing the EBL Process Leads to Improvement.  Because learning is about improving a process – how you think about a problem or an assignment, how you plan your efforts (or your team’s efforts) for doing the assignment, how you break the problem or assignment into parts that are done simultaneously or in sequence, how you learn enough to do those parts, and how you determine what the product will be to complete the assignment – then, in the end, being able to see evidence of that process allows learners to improve the process.  A simple example is golfers watching a video clip of their swing to see what they are doing wrong. 

6.     Assessment:  Assessing Learning is Assessing the Process of Learning.  Assessment of learning is therefore assessment of the process of learning as revealed in the evidence in an eportfolio.  The evidence is made up of artifacts such as notes, photos, video, graphics, reports, summaries and other familiar work artifacts showing a work in progress.  But, the evidence can and perhaps should include digital badges, a form of micro-credentialing that add authenticity and validity to the assessment of evidence-based learning.  Badges can be granted by peers or organizations or teachers to certify a level of expertise in a specific skill such as mastery of a web-authoring tool or interpreting scientific data or summarizing the key points in popular publications about a scientific controversy. (Badges is a large topic unto itself and is an important element in EBL and will therefore be the topic of another Blog). 

7.     Assessing Process is More Holistic.  Assessment of the process of learning as demonstrated in a learner’s eportfolio evidence is a more holistic assessment than simply grading a product produced as a result of that process.  This holistic assessment is more valuable in helping learners know specifically what part(s) of their process they need to work on. 

8.     EBL Assessment is a Personalized Learning System.  This holistic assessment then can be analyzed using rubrics to determine the learner’s progress toward program or institutional learning outcomes.  If the rubrics relate to the process of learning in a field, then they will be useful in determining how learners are advancing in their learning at a micro-level.  EBL, using rubrics this way, is therefore a personalized learning system, able to assess multiple paths toward learning outcomes.  As such, the system would allow for students to complete degree requirements when they have met a specified set of learning outcomes at a high enough level. 


9.     Summary.  Learners have always varied in how they learned but educators did not have the technology to easily “see” those varied processes of learning.  Now, educators do.  Secondly, because it was hard to see the process of learning, educators focused on the products produced by learners to assess their learning.  A product focus led to curricular designs that were not ideally aligned with how humans actually learn – through experience in authentic situations, collaboratively and socially.  If only the product was assessed (graded), and therefore valued, then why put effort into the process of producing that product (especially if the product was only a multiple-choice test)?  There are learning disincentives embedded in a product-focused learning structure (not to mention the lure of plagiarism). 

Now, EBL allows educators to improve learning structures and the assessment process.  EBL supports a move from product focus and all the problems associated with that to a process focus and the greater engagement and personalization that results. 

Tags:  ePortfolio  evidence-based learning 

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