Tag Archives: learning

Formative Assessment in a World of Learning Outcomes

Consider this scenario: You’re teaching language arts to a middle school special ed class. The learning objective is to write a story about making something. While you go through the provided writing sample about children building a clubhouse, your students get more excited about the clubhouse than writing a story. They ask to build a clubhouse. Do you make them write the story or do you let them build a clubhouse first?

If you go with the clubhouse, you’re delaying writing the story and you may not have time to fulfill all the learning objectives embedded in your curriculum. On the other hand, if you decide, as I did, to build your lesson on your students’ spontaneous enthusiasm, you are choosing to write in additional learning objectives involving commitment, collaboration, and problem-solving before writing the story. And, you must alter your teaching plans to achieve them.

My decision was based on formative assessment or assessment for learning. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam wrote the classic definition of formative assessment in 1998:

….the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.

This definition holds true for higher education even though Wiliam’s continuing work is with teachers in K-12. He emphasizes that many strategies can be successful as long as we remember “the big idea is to use evidence-based learning to adapt instruction to meet student needs.”  I encourage you to watch his exceptional talk, Assessment for Learning, below:

Education technology offers us valuable tools for assessment. Evidence-based programs can quickly adapt instruction based on feedback from student learning. These programs also help instructors alter their class instruction because aggregate data is available in real time. (see my earlier blog, What’s a Seventeen-Year-Old to Do?).

But there is a downside. Since, like all effective formative assessment, adaptive learning programs tie instruction and feedback to learning outcomes, the learning outcomes in adaptive programs are predetermined Formative assessment means changing student learning pathways–more material for a struggling student; less for an excelling student. But all pathways lead to the same goal.

The movement for student competencies and consistency in higher education also rests on predetermined learning outcomes. While these trends have merit, we need to be cautious and not allow them to get us entrenched in rigid practices, deterring instructors from going “off-script” and tapping into students’ enthusiasm and innovative ideas–these, too, are worthwhile in the learning environment. (When you look back, isn’t it the off-script instructors who influenced you the most?)

As we develop and use technology to get more precise evidence-based snapshots of student progress, we need to build in flexibility so that formative assessment based on student feedback can modify learning outcomes as well as learning pathways.

What’s a Seventeen-Year-Old to Do?

Originally posted on Acrobatiq and cross-posted with permission.

When co-founder Larry Page recently announced Google’s reorganization, he referred to the company as ” still a teenager.”  Incorporated in 1998, Google is 17 years old, making Page and co-founder Sergey Brin 17-year-old businessmen.

Like 17-year-olds, they are tired of routine and want the flexibility to do things they like doing.  Restructuring Google frees them from the mundane tasks of running a large company. As Page writes, it allows them “to do things other people think are crazy but we are super excited about.”

While the Google founders are getting what they want, most 17-year-olds getting ready for college will not. According to Remediation—Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere, Complete College America’s study of public institutions in 33 states including Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Texas, over 50% of students starting college or community college test into remedial courses.  In California, 68% of students entering the state college system test into remediation.

These courses rehash high school material. To adapt a University of Chicago motto, this is where excitement and freedom come to die. The proof is in how many people don’t go on to graduate.  According to the study, about 40% of community college students don’t even complete their remedial courses. Less than 10% of community college students who finish remedial classes graduate within 3 years. Only about 35% who start in remedial courses in four-year colleges obtain a degree in 6 years.

Factor in the cost of remedial courses, courses that do not count towards a degree, and you have a formula for failure. To make things even worse, placement in remediation is often based on one test that researchers say is a poor indicator of student potential.

To address this situation, educators are calling for reforms. Some states are giving remedial students a choice of whether to take remedial courses or directly enroll in regular college courses. Others are eliminating remedial education as prerequisites for regular courses, allowing students to take them as co-requisites. Technology offers other ways to support students with weak skills in regular college courses.

Digital adaptive learning programs can be adopted for all students in college courses. They address individual student abilities at every level, in effect, containing what might be called “embedded co-requisites,” academic support where needed.

As students learn, these self-paced digital programs assess their abilities, tailoring the material so that they get the most out of their time in the course. For example, if a student shows non-mastery in identifying evidence for historical argument after reading a text section, the program might give them more explanation, activities, or video on that subject. On the other hand, if a student shows mastery after one text section, they can immediately move forward.

Adaptive programs also give instructors data on how each student is progressing in real time. Based on this data, instructors can reach out to students while they are learning instead of after they have failed a test.

As students succeed at their own pace in courses that count, they will have greater motivation to complete their degrees. They might even enjoy the experience.

No More Excuses

When presented with learning technology as an older adult, I often responded that I had a finite number of neurons left to absorb new information, so I had to think carefully about how I wanted to use them. It turns out that recent research has proven me wrong. Neurons do regenerate into old age.

More importantly, new pathways between neurons can be created throughout the lifespan. This is called brain plasticity  We see this clearly with stroke patients who have lost speech or movement. Many of them can “re-learn” by building new pathways between neurons often in parts of the brain where those connections did not originally exist.

A neuron without ways to communicate with other cells is useless. Electrical impulses and chemical substances called neurotransmitters stimulate the neuron. It in turn fires across pathways to create mental activities such as memory, thinking, and feeling. It is particularly encouraging that new pathways have been found in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory. (For a detailed description of neurons, go to HowStuffWorks.)

Based on these findings, it’s clear that I don’t have to be so parsimonious about my neurons.  And, I no longer have an easy excuse for avoiding learning about technology. Neither do you. The amount we can learn may not be infinite, but it’s reasonably large enough so that we don’t have to worry about squandering brain matter. So how do we begin? Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start:

  1. What is it about technology that interests you? Even if your immediate answer to this question is “Nothing,” think again about what would enhance your use of technology. Is it learning to text or email better? Is it understanding how technology is changing the world? Is it being able to Skype with your grandchildren?
  2. How much time do you want to spend learning? Be realistic. Do you want to sign on for a multi-segment course? Or, would you rather have one-shot experiences such as seminars or videos?
  3. How would you like to learn? If you like to figure things out in private, there are many opportunities that can be accessed easily. Googling the subject matter can get you simple up-to-date information. Senior Planet has great tech tips and videos. Go on YouTube to see videos created to teach technology.

If you would rather learn with others, check out your local library, community center, or adult school for workshops. Join Meetups on technology in your area.

For a more structured class experience, contact a community college near you or browse Coursera, edX, or General Assembly for online courses.

Don’t forget the stores where you purchased your cell phone or computer. They have trained personnel to help you. Or just ask a person near you who is working on an electronic device to teach you a particular application. Most people are very helpful.

Learning technology may not be easy, but it will be worthwhile. It will give you better access to information and communication, and lessen the frustration you may be feeling in a world that is becoming more and more technology centered.

Trial and Error

When I started using computers and they stopped working in some way, I would get terribly frustrated. I would call a computer-wise friend or relative who would tell me not to get so upset. Then they would give me directions such as hit the percent key while you hold down the shift key, then a5(39H)490873, and enter.

If that didn’t work, I would become even more frustrated. But my helper would just take it in stride and say, ok, try this, hit settings, tell me what it says, ok, hold the d key, now try refresh, and on and on. At the end they would tell me, “You see, it works. No big deal. You need to calm down.”

I had many responses to that, but in most cases I would say, “Do you understand what you just did? It took us half an hour of random acts that might as well have been ‘Turn around three times, hop on one leg, hit 4 keys,  and touch your nose with your tongue’ to solve the problem.” That always got a laugh because it’s partially true, but the technology generation doesn’t care. Their love for technology includes fixing the glitches. What is frustrating to me is just part of the process for them, a process of trial and error.

Trial and error involves applying different possible solutions to a problem until one works. It’s often perceived as a primitive method of problem solving associated with practical or mechanical achievements. Young children use trial and error to discover the world around them. It takes a lot of time and patience. Thomas Edison is said to have tried at least a thousand different materials as light bulb filaments before he found one that was economical and relatively safe to use.

Those of us learning Tech As A Second Language℠ like to think that problem solving is the product of great thinking based on solid principles and experience. We don’t want to hear that if you just keep putting different things in a socket, you will succeed. To be fair, Edison didn’t just try anything; he learned from each attempt. That’s how trial and error works.

The technology generation has embraced trial and error. They would rather try different clicks to get where they want to go than read instructions. They don’t mind the moments of failure; they are confident that they will eventually succeed.

This makes sense because technology is a young, practical science. By the time you read the handbook, if there is one, it’s changed. For those who are not tech savvy, trial and error levels the playing field. Anyone can find a way to succeed. And, the more time you spend clicking, the more you learn which clicks work best for each function; the clicks are not as random as they seem to the uninitiated.

So next time your technology stops working or you need an answer to move forward such as “How do I bookmark a website?” get over your feelings of inadequacy and Google for help or start clicking. You will look tech smart and you may be surprised at how many times you can solve the problem on your own.

What’s in a Name?

Learning is a complicated process that is difficult to define. We all know it when we experience it. We also know when we don’t. We know the difference between passing a test because we pulled an all-nighter and passing because we really understand and have thought about the material. When I think of learning I think process: explore, discover, connect, invent.

Learning can happen formally in school or in an online course. We also learn through activities, social interaction, and just plain exposure. We can learn from a positive experience such as attending a play, or a negative experience such as getting mugged afterwards. Through learning, we become who we are and develop attitudes toward learning. As I look back, I realize that my love of learning was spurred quite randomly—by my last name, Diogenes.

Diogenes was a Cynic in Ancient Greece who scorned material things and those who owned them. Choosing to live in the marketplace, he slept in some sort of tub and engaged in personal acts in public explaining that one should not be ashamed of what is natural.

Diogenes defended morality, reason, and truth. When Plato defined man as a featherless biped, Diogenes supposedly plucked a chicken and tossed it into Plato’s lecture saying, “This is Plato’s man.” Plato changed his definition.

According to a popular story, Diogenes carried a lantern in broad daylight. When asked what he was doing, he said he was looking for an honest man. So people used to ask me, “Have you found an honest man yet?” I only answered yes once when I called a wedding planner about my ceremony and she asked. I answered, “Yes, and that’s why I’m calling you.”

The inquiries of strangers started me trying to find answers and eventually sent me to the library to do research on Diogenes. I even applied to college as a philosophy major. One professor, who was holding oral exams with each student, began our appointment by saying he had looked at his calendar and wondered if he was interviewing Diogenes about Descartes or Descartes about Diogenes.

Even today I dip into stories on Diogenes. Recently I read a great book, Examined Lives, by James Miller, because it had a chapter on Diogenes. That’s why I picked up the book, but, of course, I learned a lot more. It seems somewhat incredible to say, but it’s clear that I would be a different person if I had been born with another last name. And learning may not have become the enjoyable, gratifying experience it is for me if I were not a Diogenes.

Many people badmouth the use of electronic devices: “Children can’t focus on more than a few paragraphs” “They will never be able to think of anything on their own.” What if we look at it from another perspective? Now young people explore, discover, socially connect, and create through digital devices everyday. One could say that the processes of learning are embedded in their lives more than ever. And you never know which random stimulus can lead to a love of learning.