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College Quarterly
Spring 1995 - Volume 2 Number 3
Dimensions of Learning
by Janine Huot

The Ontario community college system is in the process of implementing an important educational reform with the aim of enhancing quality and increasing respect for a college credential. Four important pillars of this reform are the introduction of general education courses, the integration of generic skills into the program curriculum, the development of program standards for each post-secondary program, and the use of learning outcomes to describe generic skills and vocational goals. In the words of the authors of the Council of Regents Report, Vision 2000: Quality and Opportunity, “The focus on general education and generic skills will involve a fundamental reorientation of college curricula. To achieve our goals will require that college educators - faculty, staff and administrators - undertake a major process of renewal of curriculum and delivery methods at each college.” (p. 39). As the report indicates, each college will have the opportunity to shape the structure and methods by which its educational programs are delivered, beyond the system-wide program standards.

Within this context, it is important for colleges to examine and review a variety of educational frameworks that may be suitable for effecting the renewal and restructuring of curriculum that was initially envisioned by the Council of Regents. A review of the literature in the field of education is replete with references to models and frameworks that reflect new approaches to teaching and learning, including approaches that put an increased emphasis on general education and thinking skills in the curriculum.

Dimensions of Learning is one such model that has emerged in the early 1990s. It is described as: a learning-centred framework for planning and restructuring curriculum, instruction and assessment; a set of practical, research-based instructional strategies that infuse critical thinking and self-directed learning into curriculum and instruction; a flexible planning approach that allows teachers to focus on (1) knowledge to be learned, (2) broad issues and their applications to contemporary life, and (3) the meaningful use of knowledge in student-selected tasks. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the characteristics of this model and discuss its contributions to the current educational changes that have been initiated in the college system.

The Origin Of Dimensions Of Learning

Dimensions of Learning originates from many years of research into the cognitive processes involved when people learn. It translates the most recent research findings of cognitive psychology about how the mind works when learning occurs into practical instructional strategies that teachers can use to improve the quality of thinking, teaching and learning in their courses. During the development of this framework, a group of nearly ninety educators representing schools, districts, institutions of higher education, and state departments of education throughout the United States experimented with these teaching and planning strategies in their classrooms and reported their results to ensure that the framework is grounded in a real-life environment.

Dimensions of Learning represents a definite departure from the behavioural approach that influenced the field of psychology for over 40 years and still influences the field of education. As mentioned by Marzano (1992), “behavioural psychologists viewed the processes underlying cognition and, consequently, the processes underlying learning as existing in a sealed 'black box.'” (p.2). Since the early 1960s, the combined efforts of researchers in cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science have resulted in new knowledge about and a deeper understanding of the learning process that can serve as the basis for a truly learning-based model of instruction.

The Metaphor Of Dimensions Of Learning

The Dimensions of Learning framework rests on the premise that all successful learning involves thinking, more specifically, a complex system of interactions among five types or dimensions of thinking:

  1. Positive attitudes and perceptions about learning.
  2. Thinking involved in acquiring and integrating knowledge.
  3. Thinking involved in extending and refining knowledge.
  4. Thinking involved in using knowledge meaningfully.
  5. Productive habits of mind.

Learning as defined by cognitive psychologists is a highly interactive process by which individuals make connections and establish relationships between new concepts and the knowledge they already have in order to expand their understanding of the world they live in. Learning involves the construction of personal meaning represented by cognitive structures, i.e. networks of concepts, that will become more sophisticated as new information is integrated. Limiting learning to five types of thinking processes does not represent the reality of what happens when learning occurs. However, the authors of Dimensions of Learning offer the concept of five dimensions as a metaphor for understanding how this complex process works and transforming it into a powerful tool to improve classroom instruction. A description of the main characteristics of each dimension follows.

Dimension 1: Positive attitudes and perceptions about learning

For learning to occur, students must have positive attitudes and perceptions about learning and its environment. When students feel comfortable with and accepted by their peers and teachers, they will be more open to exploring and sharing new ideas, and learning. When there are too many distractions or too much disorder, very little learning will occur. To engage in learning tasks, students must perceive these tasks as valuable to them and have confidence in their ability to be successful in accomplishing them. Otherwise, they will not put much effort into the tasks and their learning will suffer. Therefore, learning will occur when there is a classroom climate conducive to learning and the learning activities are clear and meaningful to students.

Dimension 2: Acquiring and integrating knowledge

This dimension focuses on acquiring new knowledge, integrating it with prior knowledge, and retaining it for future use. When students need to learn new content, the teacher uses instructional strategies that help students relate new knowledge to old knowledge, organize it in meaningful patterns, and store it into their long-term memory. This last step is important because it ensures that students will be able to retrieve the information when needed.

Dimensions of Learning distinguishes between two types of knowledge to be acquired: declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge (see Table 1). This distinction is important because each type of knowledge involves somewhat different learning processes and requires different instructional strategies.

Dimension 3: Extending and refining knowledge

Once students have acquired and integrated new knowledge, they may further extend and refine it by achieving new distinctions and establishing new connections. Students analyze what they have learned in more depth and with much more rigor, and change their knowledge structures so that knowledge can be transferred to new contexts and new insights can be gained. When students extend and refine their knowledge, they engage in the following activities:

  • comparing
  • classifying
  • making deductions
  • analysing errors in reasoning
  • creating and analysing support for an argument
  • analysing perspectives
  • abstracting

When teachers plan for the use of Dimension 3, they must select the information that is important for students to extend and refine, and the necessary instructional strategies and activities that will assist students in this process.

Dimension 4: Using knowledge meaningfully

Individuals learn most effectively when they are able to use knowledge to perform meaningful tasks that allow them to explore personal interests. For instance, you might initially learn about computers by observing a demonstration or by talking about their applications with a colleague. However, you really learn about them when you need to buy one for yourself and decide which kind to buy. Through research and investigation, you will learn about their features and capabilities and set criteria for your decision. With this dimension, students are given opportunities to engage in complex issues that enhance the learning of content and their ability to learn.

Planning instructional units in which students can use their knowledge in complex tasks relating to “real life work” is one of the most important strategies that teachers need to implement more often. In the Dimensions of Learning model, five types of tasks encourage the meaningful use of knowledge: decision making, investigation, experimental inquiry, problem solving, and invention. The tasks given to students, or chosen by them, should deal with important everyday life question or problems that naturally stand out in the content. When planning for Dimension 4, the framework offers the possibility of embedding, within the task, lifelong learning skills such as communication and cooperative skills, as well as reasoning skills and higher-order thinking.

Table 1

Declarative Knowledge Procedural Knowledge
  • violence
  • constructing map projections and grids
  • an amplifier circuit
  • writing clear and concise case reports
  • a bacteria
  • calculating the fixed overhead costs for a project
  • the role of the community health nurse
  • designing spreadsheets
  • the assumptions of behaviour modification theory
  • drawing conclusions about the impact of social reform on the universality of social programs
  • the steps of the accounting, planning and control cycle
  • establishing meaningful relationships with coworkers
Dimension 5: Productive habits of mind

This dimension focuses on habits of mind necessary for students to learn on their own and become lifelong learners. Habits of mind refer to self-regulated, critical, and creative thinking and learning. While Dimension 1 aims at developing an awareness and a self-regulation of the affective factors impacting on learning, Dimension 5 aims at developing an awareness and self-regulation of the thinking strategies necessary for learning. Table 2 provides a list of the most important habits of mind.

Research findings, as reported by Borowski, Carr, Rellinger and Pressley (1990), and Paris and Winograd (1990), indicate that effective learners have developed strong habits of mind; this achievement is mainly due to their own effort because it has been found that very few teachers focus on this aspect of the learning process. The process of helping students develop effective habits of mind is different from the processes of helping students develop the other dimensions of learning; although habits of mind must be overtly taught, their development does not lend itself to explicit instructional strategies. Rather, they must be introduced to students and then reinforced as they are exhibited.

Table 2

Critical Thinking Creative Thinking Self-Regulation
  • Seeking accuracy and clarity.
  • Being open-minded.
  • Restraining impulsiveness.
  • Taking a position when the information warrants it.
  • Being sensitive to others' feelings and level of knowledge.
  • Engaging intensely in tasks when answers or solutions are not immediately apparent.
  • Pushing limits of your knowledge and abilities.
  • Generating, trusting, and maintaining your own standards of evaluation.
  • Generating new ways of viewing a situation outside the boundaries of standard conventions.
  • Being aware of your own thinking.
  • Planning.
  • Being aware of necessary resources.
  • Being sensitive to feedback.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of your actions.
The Relationship Among The Dimensions Of Learning

The dimensions of learning do not operate in isolation but work together in the manner depicted in Figure 1. Students need to experience a set of positive attitudes and perceptions (Dimension 1) about the learning environment and the tasks to be accomplished in order to make learning happen. Learning is also facilitated when students use productive habits of mind (Dimension 2). These two dimensions are factors that are always present in the learning process and represent the background in Figure 1.

Part of learning is a matter of acquiring and integrating new knowledge (Dimension 2). However, while students are acquiring and integrating this knowledge, they are also extending and refining it (Dimension 3). That is why the circle representing Dimension 2 overlaps the circle for Dimension 3. When students are using knowledge meaningfully (Dimension 4), they are also extending and refining it as well as constructing personal meaning.

It is important to remember that the Dimensions of Learning metaphor is not a linear nor a sequential model for learning and, thus, it provides a flexible framework for organizing curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Implentation Strategies

While Dimensions of Learning is a very comprehensive framework for planning learning-centred instruction, its implementation can take place gradually, for example, by focusing on one dimension at time. The implementation plan selected by a group of teachers or an educational institution will depend on the purposes to be achieved. The authors (Marzano et al., 1992) suggest four broad purposes for implementation:

Level 1 Implementation aims at assessing the degree to which teachers are already addressing each of the five dimensions in their instructional activities; the presentation of an informational overview of the framework introduces the assumptions underlying the framework and the critical elements of each of the five dimensions of learning.

Level 2 Implementation aims at expanding the repertoire of instructional strategies that teachers can draw upon to improve classroom instruction and specific types of student thinking; in the training sessions, participants are introduced to the framework and experience a few teaching strategies. For more effectiveness, teachers follow up on their training with many opportunities to practice selected strategies and participate in support groups.

Level 3 Implementation is intended to use Dimensions of Learning as an instructional planning framework by focusing on the Planning Guides it provides; teachers learn how to design long-term units of instruction that involve students in increasingly complex, self-directed performance tasks. Guided practice is an essential component of training at this level; teachers follow up on their training by working in teams to plan new instructional units and discuss these units after they are taught.

Level 4 Implementation uses the framework as a vehicle for institution or program-wide restructuring of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in order to help students become complex thinkers and independent, self-directed learners. This level of implementation is a long-term, on-going process that must be consistent with and supported by the organizational culture of the college or program in which it is attempted.

At each level of implementation, the strategies for learning and understanding Dimensions of Learning act as a role model for the framework and represent the new pedagogical models of workplace learning, in which “people learn in the context of work, by interacting with others and through experience.” (Galagan, 1994).

Contributions To The Current Reform

As mentioned earlier, colleges need to embark on a renewal of their curriculum and delivery methods as they integrate general education, generic skills and program standards into existing programs. The Dimensions of Learning framework has the potential to make valuable and lasting contributions at many levels of this renewal process.

Expanding the teaching repertoire. At a more basic level, the implementation of Dimensions of Learning at levels 1 and 2 provides the benefit of expanding the teachers' repertoire of instructional strategies. Teachers may already use many of the proposed strategies at an intuitive level; using them consciously and rigorously will allow teachers to promote meaningful learning more effectively.

Infusing analytical or thinking skills. When planning instruction with Dimensions of Learning, teachers make explicit which knowledge (declarative and procedural) needs to be acquired and integrated (Dimension 2), extended and refined (Dimension 3) and used in meaningful tasks (Dimension 4). Through this planning process, teachers automatically infuse the complex reasoning skills of Dimensions 3 and 4 into their curriculum in an explicit way. The Planning Guides included in the framework require the identification of activities or tasks that students will engage in for extending and refining their knowledge or using it meaningfully. Besides providing very useful models of the analytical skills selected by the CSAC Board as learning outcomes to be achieved by all graduates in college programs, Dimensions of Learning provides the means to overtly teach these skills throughout the curriculum.

Flexibility in instructional planning. Colleges enjoy considerable autonomy in the development of curriculum and the design of instruction for post-secondary programs. The adoption of the Dimensions of Learning framework by colleges will not reduce the autonomy and diversity already experienced in the system. Experimentation with the framework during its development revealed that three basic planning models tend to be used by teachers.

In the first Dimensions planning model, the focus is on acquiring and integrating declarative and procedural knowledge. Extending and refining activities (Dimension 3) and meaningful-use tasks (Dimension 4) are selected for the purpose of reinforcing and deepening the specific concepts, principles, generalizations and/or skills that are the basis of an instructional unit. This planning model represents a more traditional approach to instructional planning, in which mastery of knowledge and skills from a content area must be achieved. In the second Dimensions planning model, the focus shifts to important issues or problems that students need to understand by engaging in meaningful-use tasks (Dimension 4). Dimensions 2 and 3 will support the achievement of the tasks by providing the necessary declarative and procedural knowledge. This planning approach lends itself to the application of knowledge to the understanding of large issues or topics that are often interdisciplinary in nature. The third Dimensions planning model focuses as well on the integration of declarative and procedural knowledge, but leaves it to students to select a task for making a meaningful use of this knowledge. The model encourages self-directed learning because students are given the freedom to explore issues of their choice as they arise naturally in an instructional unit.

Designing general education courses. Dimensions of Learning provides a powerful and dynamic framework for designing and developing general education courses that address the goals and associated broad objectives established for general education in CSAC's document “General Education in Ontario's Community Colleges” (1994). The guiding principles that were applied for the formulation of these goals and broad objectives can be summarized as follows: (1) general education provides learners with insight into the enduring nature of the issues being addressed, and their particular relevance to today and the future; (2) general education enables learners to meet more effectively the social challenges which they face in their community, family and working life; (3) general education encourages and supports continuous learning.

At the instructional planning level, the second and third planning models, described above, offer much potential for designing general education courses consistent with these guiding principles. The most powerful element of the two models is the integration of meaningful tasks into the learning process, whether these tasks are presented to students or selected by the students themselves. The advantages of these models are three-fold: they shift the focus on factual or textbook knowledge towards relevant issues that students may or will face in their community, family and work environments; they provide a process to construct performance tasks that allow students to make sense of society and their place within it; and they are compatible with learning outcomes that deal with the application of knowledge to large issues, the infusion of thinking skills and the development of self-directed learning skills.

Giving meaning to “learning outcomes”. Giving meaning to the concept of “learning outcomes”, as defined by the CSAC Board, is another important contribution of Dimensions of Learning to the current efforts expended by college teachers in writing program and course learning outcomes. This contribution stems from the cognitive approach to learning taken by the authors of the framework. This approach describes learning as a process of constructing personal meaning from the information available in a learning situation and then integrating that information with what we already know to create new knowledge. It follows that the process of learning results in the creation of new cognitive structures, or coherent networks of concepts, that expand and become increasingly sophisticated in order to better understand and interpret the world we live in. These structures cannot be observed as they are internal products; they will also differ from one student to the other, even though the learning activities they participated in were identical.

Cognitive structures are equivalent to the invisible part of an iceberg and, consequently, they can only be inferred through the demonstration of performances or tasks, the visible part of the iceberg (Désilets et Brassard, 1994), that will serve as indicators that learning has taken place. It is at this point that the cognitive view of learning at the basis of the Dimensions of Learning framework joins in with the CSAC definition of “learning outcomes” in its January 1994 publication: “Learning outcomes represent culminating demonstrations of learning and achievement. They describe performances that demonstrate that significant learning has been verified and achieved by graduates of the program.” In other words, the performances described in learning outcomes will be used by teachers as indicators that students have created for themselves significant cognitive structures that allow them to understand their social, family and work environments.

How complex should a performance be? Consistent with a cognitive approach to learning, a performance is a set of coordinated actions representing an application of knowledge, in which are embedded declarative and procedural knowledge, and thinking strategies. Wiggins (1989) will go as far as advocating the use of authentic tasks to verify that meaningful learning has taken place, i.e. the tasks should be truly representative of performance in the field. These authentic tasks strongly resemble the meaningful-use tasks in Dimension 4 of the framework. By comparison, in a more traditional view of learning represented by the metaphor of the “chocolate box” model of learning (Perkins 1991), the retrieval of isolated chocolates of diverse flavours would not represent a set of coordinated actions.

In conclusion, familiarity with the Dimensions of Learning framework can contribute, at many levels, to the implementation of the changes that the CSAC Board has presented to the Ontario community college system in its recent publications. The framework should not be seen as a panacea, but as one of the tools available to improve the quality of educational programs and develop a clearer vision of a renewed curriculum. Its greatest benefit is its learning-based approach, an approach that focuses on “meaningful” learning: not the knowing of facts or the mastery of a technique in a classroom context, but the ability to perform a role or function in personal, social and vocational contexts.

To assist in the renewal of curriculum, instruction and assessment that is called for by the integration of general education, generic skills and learning outcomes, Dimensions of Learning provides the tools needed to design instruction and use instructional strategies that support and facilitate meaningful learning; to construct performance-based assessment tasks to evaluate the achievement of learning outcomes; to specify what it means to be a complex thinker and a self-directed learner; to develop criteria and performance standards by which student growth in these abilities can be assessed. As Marzano (1992) puts it: “The Dimensions of Learning model is meant as a tool for bringing substantive change in schools.” (p. 179). However, whenever we use a tool, we must first determine what we want to accomplish with it. Therein lies the challenge!


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Janine Huot is a self-employed educational consultant. Throughout her career she has been involved in faculty development, inluding six years at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.