Equitable access to technology resources is one of the most pernicious issues in our society today: students who cannot afford computers cannot participate in the information revolution that so many of us take for granted. While students without their own computers can go to a computer lab or to a library, this requires extra time and effort on their part.
While some students are able to make the time, they are not willing to do so. In other cases, students are willing to take the time and make the effort but simply don’t have the time because of work/life commitments that demand them to do something other than prepare for class. So what to do?
In the end, students are going to spend time outside of class doing something. The trick is to find ways to make what happens outside class relevant to what happens inside class, to make it intellectually stimulating, and to make it worth the effort. In other words, it produces tangible, measurable evidence of learning that both the student and the instructor can see.
For the majority of students, learning outside of the classroom occurs in the context of two things: studying (usually for a test, quiz, or exam) and homework. The accepted notion about homework is that it gives students an opportunity to practice and apply what they are learning in class. The accepted notion about studying is that studying for tests, quizzes, or exams gives the student the opportunity to coalesce and organize what they have been learning. The test, quiz, or exam provides a performance context in which the student demonstrates his/her mastery of the subject matter.
Despite the best intentions behind the idea of homework, most of it turns into mindless, purposeless busywork. The homework is done at home, handed in the next day, and returned to the student the following day (or later) with a grade on it. Sometimes it’s a number grade; sometimes it’s a letter grade. But more often than not, it’s a “Good job!” or a check plus. There’s no connection between what was done in class, outside class, the next day in class, and the following day when the homework is returned. There’s no opportunity to apply what was covered in class and then get timely, rich feedback from the teacher and peers on this application of the new knowledge or information. The reason is quite simple: there is no way to connect what happened in class with what happens outside, and there is no way to connect what happened outside with what happens in class the next time.
Studying implies that you have already learned the material beforehand, and that studying will simply call to mind what you have already learned. But as the performance on the assessment clearly shows, this is often not the case. So if learning never happened to begin with, what good is studying? In these cases, the student might be forced to learn the material that he or she neglected to learn, either via a homework assignment or some other means. But being forced to learn something is probably not the best way to instill a love of learning!
Nevertheless, we have all engaged in this process at some point in our lives: we cram. We take huge amounts of information, store it in short term memory, and then regurgitate it for the purposes of the test, quiz, or exam. And once that’s over, we promptly purge it from short-term memory and go on with our lives.
For a disturbingly large number of students, the process below is synonymous with learning:
- engage in mindless homework exercises
- receive no rich, timely feedback on the homework
- have little or no sense of what you know and what you can do throughout the learning experience
- cram for tests the night before you take them
- promptly forget what you studied
Here's what I imagine as the ideal:
- engage in rich homework exercises that connect directly to what happens in class
- receive rich, timely feedback on the homework
- have a strong sense of what you know and what you can do throughout the learning experience
- engage in a mixture of on-going assessments that promote self-directed learning and encourage self-confidence
- deeply ingrain what you studied and make meaningful connections between yourself and different subjects such that learning becomes a form of self-expression
For my presentation on formative assessment using web-based teaching and learning tools, follow this link.
Note - it's about 55 minutes long and works best on a Windows machine using Internet Explorer or on a Mac using Safari. You can skip ahead to different sections and go back to different sections using the links on the left.