We make sense of the world around us by using a variety of internal lenses. Our learning may be more abstract than concrete, more right-brain than left-brain, more visual processing than auditory or kinesthetic, etc. We may lean towards one political party or ideological cause over another. And depending on whether we are night owls or early risers, we may be half asleep or raring to go when the alarm clock rings each morning. With so many perspectives, how can instructors meaningfully address them in college or university classrooms? A systems approach offers a bimodal solution.
Systems thinking is the study of communication patterns and relationships that impact people individually, interpersonally, and environmentally (Caplan & Luisi, 2014). Interactions are important at each level and can be thought of as either linear (straightforward) or nonlinear (more complex). Using a linear teaching approach, the subject matter is presented in a way that enhances the understanding of content across standard taxonomies (Meadows, 2015). This helps students answer questions such as: What are the key points I need to know? What comes next? Will it be on the test? Nonlinear teaching, on the other hand, offers broader implications for learning because it taps into alternative ways of thinking and higher-level processing (Groves & Vance, 2015); answering questions like: How can I see this problem from a different angle? Let’s look at ways instructors can adopt both linear and nonlinear thinking to add depth to their lessons.
Using a Systems of Psychology course as an example, a linear format includes a standard outline of key points for all information taught on a given day. A sample lesson focuses on Systems Thinking, which involves a systems overview, feedback loops, open and closed systems, and cognition. The approach is linear because it is clearly divided into headings and subheadings and itemizes each aspect of the lesson so that students can easily follow from one subject to the next. The lesson can be made available on the college or university’s Learning Management System (LMS) and as an optional handout in class.
Now that students have a lesson plan in hand, Prezi, a web-based presentation tool, offers an alternative method that introduces the same lesson in a nonlinear format. In the systems example, each main theme is clearly displayed on the opening screen for students to take in at a single glance. Instructors begin the presentation by introducing the first concept, systems overview, and zeroing in on its components. With each slide advancement, images, videos, and audio clips help to enhance the understanding of key concepts. Questions can be embedded directly into the Prezi (e.g., “What is the difference between mechanistic thinking and systems thinking?”) to encourage students to apply the concept to their academic and personal lives.
The systems lesson is just one example of combining linear and nonlinear thinking to enhance student learning. Here are a few more:
- Quizzes: Assigning tests and quizzes throughout the semester is necessary to assess student understanding of important course content. A nonlinear approach to testing incorporates student-generated quizzes. The week before a midterm exam, for example, students can work individually or in groups to construct their own quiz items. After a given amount of time, the instructor assembles and numbers the items and provides a mock quiz. This student-generated quiz thus allows learners to practice and share their ideas in an atmosphere that is less anxiety-provoking than the midterm exam itself.
- Group presentations: In workgroups, students are often assigned to present course content that is educational, research-based, and straightforward. A more nonlinear approach is for groups to present the same information using skits, role plays, poetry readings, etc., that demonstrate the content in a more creative way. In terms of learning taxonomies, the straightforward method is vital for basic understanding and comprehension while its nonlinear counterpart taps into higher level thinking such as creativity and synthesis of information.
- Teaching: A variation on item #2 involves course instruction. The more traditional approach involves the “sage on the stage” in which the instructor delivers course content from Point A to Point B in a well-defined format. From a nonlinear perspective, students can prepare content and teach the class in groups, which are predetermined or of their own choosing. In groups of 4-6 or more, students can make presentations not only to the class as a whole but to other student groups. Group A presents to Group B and vice versa, Group C presents to Group D and vice versa until all have had a chance to teach and learn a given lesson.
- Questions/discussions: Throughout lectures, instructors ask periodic questions and correct wrong answers as they occur. This linear method assures that students are tracking important learning points from the lesson. A nonlinear alternative is to implement the Yes/And approach, which is used by actors to practice their improvisational skills. This technique adds the opportunity of building on answers and enhances discussions instead of limiting them. The instructor can provide a prompt such as the following: “One morning, I was sitting in my den reading the newspaper. There was a knock at the door. When I opened it, I was astonished to see an alligator standing on its hind legs. Clearing its throat, the alligator said . . .” Working individually, in dyads, or groups, students build off the prompt to complete the original story; followed by a subsequent class discussion about this collaborative process.
- Seating: Throughout a given semester, students often sit with a small cohort of friends with whom they interact from week to week. An alternative arrangement involves changing the seating order, which can be accomplished by asking pupils to count 1, 2, 3, etc. and then assigning each numbered group to sit together for the remainder of the lesson. This nonlinear approach allows students to view the subject matter from a different lens as they interact with a broader variety of classmates.
- Tactile learning: In a typical lesson, the educator presents information in a way that introduces and connects key concepts. One way to add nonlinearity to this process is for students to pass a piece of string or yarn to another student with each new concept introduced. In the Systems of Psychology example mentioned previously, learners would pass a ball of yarn from student to student with each new concept, including positive feedback, negative feedback, open systems, closed systems, etc. This adds a tactile/kinesthetic factor to help members slow down and focus on key points of the lecture.
The academic world offers multiple pathways that include day-to-day routines and detours to enhance critical thinking. Why not give both to our students? An approach that focuses on linear and nonlinear processing can integrate academic standards and higher order thinking. Hopefully, a collaboration of teaching options – both inside and outside the box – will provide viable learning opportunities that match the many perspectives students bring to our classrooms.
T. Scott Bledsoe, PsyD, is a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He is the director of clinical training for PsyD internship and teaches students of both doctoral psychology and marriage and family therapy. He has taught and published in multiple areas including teaching and technology, cultural diversity, and fear and anxiety in university settings. Dr. Bledsoe maintains a private psychotherapy practice and is active in the Azusa community. Before embarking on a career in clinical psychology, he worked as an elementary school teacher for 11 years in South Central Los Angeles.
Capra, F. & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Groves, K. S., & Vance, C. M. (2015). Linear and nonlinear thinking: A multidimensional model and measure. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 49(2), 111–136. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocb.60
Meadows, D. H. (2015). Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Publishing.