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The Role of the Psychomotor Domain in Higher Education

psychomotor domain"Why do I need to worry about manual skills? I teach history/French/maths...". My answer is simple. What tools are used in the pursuit of your discipline? Is there not a degree of increasing proficiency in the deployment of these tools expected of students they progress through their studies?

Psychomotor skills can be defined as those skills and abilities that require a physical component. Rather than using the mind to think (cognitive) or reflect (metacognitive), or our ability to speak and observe to develop social skills (affective, interpersonal), these are things we do physically. These skills require a degree of dexterity, suppleness, or strength. They require motor control.

Such skills have been in development since parents taught their children to hunt, to sew skins together and make fire. There is a rich history in vocational education towards acknowledging progressive skills development, from apprentice to journeyman and to master (Perrin, 2017), dating back before the establishment of craft guilds in the European High Middle Ages (Richardson, 2005). As the craft guilds loosened their grip, as industrialisation centralised the production of goods and ultimately services, some skills have been lost, others divided, segmented, into a series of tasks. Formal education has routinely separated cognitive and manual skills, giving primacy to intellectual skills above all others (Gardner, 2011).

With the growth of formalised vocational education, noticeably in the OECD developed economies in the 1950s to the 1970s, attention turned amongst policymakers as to how to codify and measure progressive skills development. These resulted in the development of a number of educational taxonomies for objectives (or outcomes in later language) notably those of Simpson (1972), Harrow (1972) and Dave (1969). It is understood that Ravindra Dave was party to Bloom's project team's original 1950s work on the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains although all three significant contributions have to some extent referenced Bloom's work.

Simpson (1972) established a progressive taxonomy with 7 stages.

Stage Descriptor
Perception* Sensory cues guide motor activity.
Set* Mental, physical, and emotional dispositions that make one respond in a certain way to a situation.
Guided Response First attempts at a physical skill. Trial and error coupled with practice lead to better performance.
Mechanism The intermediate stage in learning a physical skill. Responses are habitual with a medium level of assurance and proficiency.
Complex Overt Response Complex movements are possible with a minimum of wasted effort and a high level of assurance they will be successful.
Adaptation Movements can be modified for special situations.
Origination New movements can be created for special situations.

Arguably Simpson's first two stages are dispositional and can be separated from the remaining 5 stages. Likewise, Harrow's (1972) 6 stage taxonomy organized around the notion of coordination is less of a  progressive educational taxonomy given that it combines involuntary responses*, arguably interpersonal skills** and learned capabilities:

Stage Descriptor
Reflex movements* Automatic reactions.
Basic fundamental movement Simple movements that can build more complex sets of movements.
Perceptual Environmental cues that allow one to adjust movements.
Physical activities Things requiring endurance, strength, vigour, and agility.
Skilled movements Activities where a level of efficiency is achieved.
Non-discursive communication ** Body language.

My personal belief is that less is more in the context of psychomotor taxonomies and favour the following 5 stage version developed by Ravindra H. Dave (1970) in the context of vocational education.

Stage Descriptor
Imitation Observing and copying someone else.
Manipulation Guided via instruction to perform a skill.
Precision Accuracy, proportion and exactness exist in the skill performance without the presence of the original source.
Articulation Two or more skills combined, sequenced, and performed consistently.
Naturalization Two or more skills combined, sequenced, and performed consistently and with ease. The performance is automatic with little physical or mental exertion.

I have adapted Dave's psychomotor taxonomy in order to make it suitable for the articulation of intended learning outcomes for higher education programmes, regardless of disciplines.

Dave Stage Atkinson's Stage Revised Descriptor
Imitation (to) Imitate ability to copy, replicate the actions of others following observations.
Manipulation (to) Manipulate ability to repeat or reproduce actions to prescribed standard from memory or instructions.
Precision (to) Perfect ability to perform actions with expertise and without interventions and the ability to demonstrate and explain actions to others.
Articulation (to) Articulate ability to adapt existing psychomotor skills in a non-standard way, in different contexts, using alternative tools and instruments to satisfy a need.
Naturalization (to) Embody ability to perform actions in an automatic, intuitive or unconscious way appropriate to the context.

I have then chosen to represent this revised version of the psychomotor domain as a circular form (as I have done with other domains). This develops the active verbs appropriate to each proto-verb for each stage which can be used to design course designers in authoring intended learning outcomes and learning activities and their objectives. The outer circle also suggest possible, but not exclusive approaches to allowing students to demonstrate such skills development in the context of higher education.

psychomotor domain

But what again of the academic who says, "I teach history (or maths, or French, or nearly any higher education discipline), what do these skills have to do with me and my students?"

My answer is simple. What tools are used in the pursuit of your discipline? Is there not a degree of increasing proficiency in the deployment of these tools expected of students they progress through their studies?

Examples of tools used in higher education across a range of disciplines are not hard to come up with. Once you start thinking about it I am sure you can add many more:

Discipline Tools (physical, paper-based or online)
Languages Dictionaries, Thesaurus, Lexicons
Maths Calculator, MathML, Geometry software
History & Philosophy Mapping software, archival retrieval, databases
Geography GIS (Geographic Information Systems), Mapping software, Spatial databases
Psychology and biology Response systems, lab equipment
Physics and Chemistry Modelling and visualisation software, lab equipment
Accounting and Business SPSS, Accounting software, Spreadsheets
Music Instruments, recording equipment
Dance & Performance Lighting rigs, sound equipment

More advanced students expected to record and analyse quantitative or qualitative data are likely to also be faced with using SPSS or its equivalent of NVivo or its competitors. And of course, all students should be expected to make use of the library search engines and associated bibliographic software. Most will also use word processing software (Word) and presentational software (PowerPoint).

Do we assume that the skills to use these skills are simply absorbed through some form of osmosis, through casual exposure? Can we realistically expect undergraduates to have 'done this at school'  or for postgraduates to 'come already equipped from their undergraduate degree'?

Obviously not. So what do we do about it as course designers and teaching faculty? Firstly we need to design our courses through a systemic approach. But we can also make use of the psychomotor taxonomies above to structure assessable intended learning outcomes. We know that students are focussed on where the assessment points to. They engage in anything that is directly assessed and ignore anything that appears peripheral. So by designing into a module's ILOs the psychomotor skills associated with the tools of the discipline we are able to:

  • motivate students
  • encourage their real-world assessment skills
  • deliver employment skills

Unless there is an absolute, universally agreed, brand name associated with a tool it is always best to refer to it more generically. For example, it is better to refer to 'GIS systems' rather 'ArcGIS', or 'professional audio mixing equipment' rather than 'Studiomaster ClubXS'.

The same guidelines on creating well-structured progressive ILOs for intellectual skills (cognitive domain) still apply. As with all ILO it is important to be a precise and concise as possible while all the while trying to preserve a degree of flexibility. 

Structure of all ILOs follows the same pattern: Active Verb -> Subject -> Context.

Below are some examples. Each one makes use of my taxonomy circle above demonstrating a progression in complexity should a student be required to develop increased proficiency towards mastery through an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

This first example is from a humanities discipline in which archival databases and library-based sources more often than not require some manipulation. Consider the difference between what is being asked of a first-year undergraduate and that of a postgraduate masters student. Remember this is just one of a number of ILOs for this particular module.

Discipline: History On successful completion of this module you will be able to:
Level 4: First Year UG replicate searches of valuable sources of historical research data for the purpose of  verification
Level 5: Second Year UG employ a range of different search engines and archival systems to produce a meaningful dataset
Level 6: Third Year UG organise a systematic search of historical records in order to answer a pre-determined research question
Level 7: Masters manage searches across a range of remote web-based services to provide a robust dataset

You will also notice that I have not made the mistake of identifying a specific archive or database. So your resources can change without you having to rewrite your ILOs.

In this next example, from a physical science discipline, instruments are named but only using their generic name rather than a specific model or brand for the same reason. The progressive theme here is measurement.

Discipline: Physics On successful completion of this module you will be able to:
Level 4: First Year UG adhere to prescribed methods for using Vernier callipers to make accurate measurements
Level 5: Second Year UG manipulate a range of micrometres to perform precise measurements
Level 6: Third Year UG calibrate an oscilloscope to accurately measure time-variance in voltages
Level 7: Masters integrate a range of different lab equipment in order to support the accurate recording of experimental data

Finally, here is an example from languages. I remember at one institution a student complained that they did not know how to add accents and macrons to their typed script. They were resorting to printing out a text and then providing the finishing touches with a pen! Surely we should support students to develop skills in something as superficially basic as word-processing too.

Discipline: French On successful completion of this module you will be able to:
Level 4: First Year UG replicate simple tasks to make use of an AZERTY keyboard to produce French language texts
Level 5: Second Year UG employ the customisation features within your word processing software to facilitate authoring in French
Level 6: Third Year UG organise your information technology environment to optimise the production of edited texts in French
Level 7: Masters integrate multilingual referenced sources in your bibliographic software and cite them appropriately through a variety of publishing platforms

Hopefully, these illustrations will provide you with some insights into how you might progressively support students in their 'tool' use.
For most university programmes, with the exception of arts and performance related subjects, psychomotor domain skills are likely to be seen as less significant than the cognitive (intellectual skills), affective (values), metacognitive (epistemological development) and interpersonal (communication) domain skills. But I would argue there is not a single programme, if not every single module, warrants the inclusion of a psychomotor outcomes students needs to have assessed to invest value in its acquisition.

References

Dave, R. H. (1967). Psychomotor domain. Presented at the International Conference of Educational Testing, Berlin.
Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Perrin, D. C. (2017, January 13). The Apprenticeship Model: A Journey toward Mastery. Retrieved September 1, 2018, from https://www.classicalu.com/the-apprenticeship-model-three-levels-to-mastery/
Richardson, G. (2005). Craft Guilds and Christianity in Late-Medieval England: A Rational-Choice Analysis. Rationality and Society, 17(2), 139–189. https://doi.org/10.1177/1043463105051631

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