Let Your Learners Pull

I’ve recently seen a few articles about push vs pull learning, and I realized this is a good way to describe my own approach to course design and instruction. To put it simply, push learning is instructor driven and pull learning is student driven. A lecture is push. Using Code Academy to learn coding is pull. Motivation is a key indicator of learning and when we seek out our learning our motivation is very high – we simply want to learn something and so we do.

Pull learning is student-centered. Learners have the opportunity to learn what they want, how they want and when the want. There is, of course, a huge difference between the types of things we seek out on our own to learn and formal courses. It would be hard to argue that students in a college algebra course should be allowed to learn what they want. Instructors will likely argue that there are certain things that students simply need to learn in such a course. But pull learning is not incompatible with formal courses and the online environment is ideally suited to promoting this. For example, rather than offering students a lecture (in text or video) or a textbook, course developers can focus on providing multiple avenues to the content and let students choose their own path. For example, in our college algebra class, we can include a short instructor video, links to other online vides such as those on Khan Academy, online tutorials, articles, pictures, graphs, charts, and even things like forum discussions. By doing this, we let students pull out the resources that work best for them. We also encourage them to seek out additional resources. By linking to a forum, for example, we might encourage some students to join conversations or seek out new information.

Content is only half (or less) of the learning process. If we only focus on content we are really only asking students to recall that content over a short period of time. Such learning often lacks meaning for students. Learners also need to apply, evaluate, create, etc. in order to cement learning and develop understanding. Providing meaningful opportunities to apply learning is essential. Pull learning is ideal here. Instead of just focusing on accessing content, we provide students a reason to pull out the information they need.

Rather than worksheets or homework problems, for example, we can design activities that provide a lot of student choice and opportunities to apply learning in personally meaningful ways. Below is an example activity related to quadratic equations. In a push model of learning, students are often given a lecture or worked examples and then asked to work a bunch more on their own. This type of learning is rote. Student may have little motivation beyond earning a grade and may not even develop real understanding. In other words, they can solve problems in contrived situations but cannot determine when and how to apply their learning in unique and real world scenarios.


The value of objects can change greatly over time. A 10 year old car will be worth much less than what it was when new but a 50 year old car could easily be worth more. Many things become collector’s items and increase in value. Others become largely worthless such the Godfather DVD box set which sold for well over $50 in 2001 and now is worth little more than 4 bucks. On the other hand, old vinyl records can sell for thousands or even millions. This change in value over time can be represented using a quadratic equation, and a well constructed (i.e. based on good and reliable data) quadratic can be used to predict future value. Select a collectable (a particular car, album, comic, baseball card, book, coin, stamp, etc.) of interest to you, research its value trends and then construct and solve a quadratic equation to represent the change in value over time. Here is one example that illustrates this.

An activity like this encourages students to seek out a mix of information to help them solve a real problem related to something they find personally interesting (because they can choose it). Students now have a reason to pull content and apply it. Motivation is higher, learning is more meaningful and understanding deeper.

Developing activities like the one above requires both subject matter expertise and knowledge of adult learning and instructional design. Some faculty may be experts in both, but most will benefit from working with an instructional designer who understands student-centered, project-based and pull learning.


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