Research released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that student performance on tests may be related not only to knowledge gained, but time between significant tasks. The new research -- by Ian Fillmore and Devin G. Pope of the University of Chicago -- examined student performance on Advanced Placement exams. The AP final exams are not always on the same schedule, so students who take more than one AP exam have varying amounts of time between the tests. The study found "strong evidence" that having shorter time periods between exams resulted in lower scores on the second exam. Students who take two exams with 10 days between them are 8 percent more likely to pass both exams than those who take the exams one day apart. An abstract of the study may be found here.
Are you a faculty member or administrator who thinks that the latest technologies are finally going to enable us to teach our students well, or do you at least hope that’s the case? If so, you should reconsider, because the vaunted elements of the latest technologies have been around for some 100 years. It isn’t having the technology, but using the technology that is key to helping students learn well.
For at least the past decade there has been much talk about the advantages of highly sophisticated online courses and the use of online tools in traditional courses. One of the significant advantages of technology-enhanced courses, it is said, is that they can be tailored to individual students’ needs, and thus achieve desired learning outcomes for each student better and faster.
Consider for example, this quote from the website of the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix: "Based upon the belief that learning is not a one-size-fits-all experience, Apollo Technology developed the technology to deliver data-driven, personalized education tailored to the individual. Apollo Technology’s unique student data system collects and analyzes individual student data, and delivers automatic just-in-time guidance that can significantly improve student outcomes." In 2010, the University of Phoenix announced a new Learning Management System, the Learning Genome Project, that "gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their 'learning DNA.'" Similarly, a recent article in The New York Times stated: "Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material … MOOCs [massive open online courses] are likely to be a game changer."
These statements are evidence of the general belief that now, using technology, we can achieve all sorts of personalized instruction, which constitutes a revolution in how we can help students learn.
But using technology to individualize student learning is not at all a new idea — it does not originate with online courses or with the technology developments of the past decade, or two, or even three. Using technology to individualize student learning is an idea going back at least 100 years. One of the original learning theorists of the modern era, Edward Thorndike, stated in his 1912 book: "If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print."
A couple of World Wars later, one of Thorndike’s intellectual descendants, B.F. Skinner, recognized as the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, was developing and crystallizing the field of operant conditioning, the form of learning in which so-called voluntary behavior changes as a result of its consequences. In the third and final volume of his autobiography, Skinner relates that in 1953, in seeing how his daughters were being educated at the Shady Hill School, "I suddenly realized that something had to be done. Possibly through no fault of her own, the teacher was violating two fundamental principles: the students were not being told at once whether their work was right or wrong (a corrected paper seen 24 hours later could not act as a reinforcer), and they were all moving at the same pace regardless of preparation or ability. But how could a teacher reinforce the behavior of each of 20 or 30 students at the right time and on the material for which he or she was just then ready?.... A few days later I built a primitive teaching machine."
Skinner later developed more sophisticated versions of teaching machines, demonstrating one at the University of Pittsburgh in 1954. These machines presented math problems one at a time, with students having to solve each problem before being able to go on to the next.
In 1961 Skinner took a somewhat different approach to personalized instruction when he published, with Holland, the programmed textbook The Analysis of Behavior. This book focused on the principles of learning, more specifically, the principles of classical (Pavlovian) and operant conditioning, with an emphasis on the latter. The introductory pages of the book, echoing Thorndike in 1912, state that "the material was designed for use in a teaching machine…. Where machines are not available, a programmed textbook such as this may be used. The correct response to each item appears on the following page, along with the next item in the sequence."
Students wrote down their answers before turning the page, and repeated a section if more than 10 percent of the answers in that section were incorrect. I first encountered this book in the summer of 1968, as a 15-year-old student in a psychology course taught under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. Similar to other students in my group that summer, I finished this text within weeks and loved it. In 1964, in seventh grade, I had been the beneficiary of another programmed textbook, English 3200. This book was part of a very successful series that taught English grammar.
Another well-known figure in the origins of operant conditioning, Fred Keller, published his iconic article, "Good-bye Teacher…" in 1968. In this article he essentially advocates breaking down the entire teaching process to its elements, and conducting each of those elements more efficiently. The prime function of the teacher becomes, not to lecture, which is best left to automated means, but to engage in direct interaction with students in support of their individualized instruction. More specifically, Keller points out as important the following teaching elements:
1. Highly individualized instruction that allows students to progress at their own speed.
2. Clear specification of learning outcomes (the specific skills to be achieved).
3. Clear specification of the steps needed to achieve these learning outcomes.
4. A goal of perfection for each student and for each stage in the learning process.
5. Two types of teachers: Classroom teachers whose duties include "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and other teachers who deal with "course logistics, the interpretation of training manuals, the construction of lesson plans and guides, the evaluation of student progress, the selection of [classroom teachers], and the writing of reports for superiors."
6. Using lectures as little as possible — more as a way to motivate students, and using student participation as much as possible.
7. Lots of testing, all with immediate feedback to students, which helps to ensure student learning.
This breakdown of the learning process makes large parts of that process, parts that are ordinarily done in classrooms involving direct human interaction, well suited for being done by technology. However, humans are clearly still needed for specifying the learning outcomes and the steps required to reach them, as well as other tasks involving analysis and creativity and complex interactions with students.
Just a few years later, in the fall of 1972, I took an undergraduate course on learning at Harvard University, taught by William Baum, that followed the "Keller plan." The work was divided into 26 units, each requiring some reading, some questions to which answers had to be found and learned (50 to 80 such questions per unit, some of which would require an essay to really answer properly), and a written and an oral quiz. Students were not allowed to progress to the next unit until they had passed the written and oral quizzes for the preceding unit, and individual instruction with Baum or his graduate teaching assistant was always available. However, due to the large number of units in this 14-week course, and the difficulty of the quizzes, which students often did not pass, very few students finished the entire sequence and so very few students received an A. Thus using the Keller method does not automatically result in students doing well. The application of such teaching techniques is critical.
Lest anyone think that visions of improving learning by the use of technology are limited to psychologists, 1995 saw the publication of an outstanding work of science fiction by Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. A central theme in this work is an interactive book, owned by a small girl, that greatly facilitates her learning, development, and upbringing. We cannot yet achieve the degree of device interactivity that Stephenson describes, but we can achieve elements of that interactivity, and Stephenson gives us a vision of the possibilities.
In 1998, Frank Mayadas, then a program director at the Sloan Foundation, gave the keynote address at the City University of New York’s Baruch College’s first annual Teaching and Technology Conference. In this address he pointed out that all forms of college learning have three elements in common: an expert, who oversees the process; information sources; and colleagues, with whom a student learns. All three are important in the learning process, and all three may be instantiated in different ways depending on the modality of instruction. Although current technology cannot by itself design a new course, it can serve well as an information source, and it can assume some of the functions of colleagues. As technology continues to develop, the functions that it can serve will increasingly closely resemble those that have traditionally been served by humans.
The more recent past, 2010, saw the publication of DIY U by Anya Kamenetz. Consistent with Keller in 1968 and Mayadas in 1998, Kamenetz also would separate the components of the learning process, instead of concentrating them all in a course’s single professor as has been largely the case until now. In her vision of the future, individualized instruction is assumed, with technology playing a significant role, including by taking over those parts of teaching that can be automated.
Kamenetz’s vision is not far away given what is already happening on today’s campuses. As stated in a 2012 report from the Ithaka organization, "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education": "Literally for the first time in centuries, faculty and administrators are questioning their basic approach to educating students. The traditional model of lectures coupled with smaller recitation sections (sometimes characterized as 'the sage on the stage') is yielding to a dizzying array of technology-enabled pedagogical innovations." One primary use of technology is to deliver lecture material outside of class, while class time is used for discussion and other active interactions involving the instructor and the students. This is known as the flipped classroom, which turns "traditional education on its head." But recall Keller’s 1968 suggestions about how teachers should be used for "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and that lectures should be "used as little as possible … and student participation as much as possible." It seems that the new invention of the flipped classroom is not so new at all.
What encourages these recent statements about the benefits of technology for learning is a worldwide recognition that what is important in higher education is the achievement of specific, agreed-upon learning outcomes. Although this emphasis was present at least from 1912 in the work of learning theorists such as Thorndike, who emphasize the end result — the behavioral goal — in their approach to changing behavior, it has only been in the past few decades that such recognition has become prominent in higher education.
One example is contained within what is known as the Spellings Report (the 2006 report of the commission that was appointed by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings). A major point of this report was that "[a]ccreditation agencies should make performance outcomes, including completion rates and student learning, the core of their assessment as a priority over inputs or processes." It is this emphasis on learning outcomes that, in part, enables the use of technology in the learning process. Once the learning outcomes are specified, the process of helping students to achieve them can be programmed, using increasingly sophisticated technology.
Many of the elements of good teaching discussed here — for example, individualized instruction, frequent testing, focus on outcomes, immediate feedback — now have sound laboratory evidence to support their use (see a comprehensive survey here). We seem to have forgotten their behavioral psychology origins and history, yet it is their effectiveness that is important in the end. Perhaps there are additional lessons to be learned from behavioral scientists, however, in the use of technology to facilitate instruction. We have only to look at casino attendees, particularly the users of slot machines, to see evidence of what Skinner and Keller knew firsthand in the laboratory with rats, that animals (including humans) respond at a high, continuous, persistent rate on variable ratio schedules (situations in which each reward arrives after a variable number of responses). Using such knowledge, in addition to knowledge from cognitive psychology about how best to structure concepts, can result in online courses that not only make concepts easy to learn and remember but, similar to slot machines, are almost irresistibly attractive.
Keller in 1968 summed up his position on teaching with the following:
Twenty-odd years ago, when white rats were first used as laboratory subjects in the introductory course, a student would sometimes complain about his animal’s behavior. The beast couldn’t learn, he was asleep, he wasn’t hungry, he was sick, and so forth. With a little time and a handful of pellets, we could usually show that this was wrong. All that one needed to do was follow the rules. “The rat,” we used to say, “is always right.”
My days of teaching are over. But … I learned one very important thing: the student is always right. He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement.
Although we can all agree that college students are certainly not the same as casino attendees or lab rats, we can also all agree that technology, designed and used correctly, can facilitate instruction through personalization as well as through motivation. (The popular appeal of many online role-playing games is one example of that.)
The teaching techniques and tools discussed here have been promoted by behavioral psychologists for the past century. What lessons can we learn from this? One is that it is possible to facilitate learning using the techniques discussed here, such as personalized instruction, without ever having to use the latest (very expensive) technology. There are times when a relatively cheap programmed textbook will help someone learn, perhaps not as well as the best online programs, but very well.
A related lesson is that it is not the existence of the latest technology or its potential uses that will help us to maximize student learning, but using what we know and have. Faculty must be both aware of the techniques and tools at their disposal, and want to use them. This requires proper training during graduate school, professional development later on, and appropriate college and university incentive structures (all of which have been too often missing if the repeated rediscovery of these techniques and tools during the past century is any indication).
The sorts of tools that we have needed to help students learn have been around for 100 years, albeit continuously improved. It is our job to — finally — use those tools.
Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.
There’s nothing like a juicy academic scandal to get the fall semester off to an exciting start, and this year’s hot story is what newspapers and blogs are calling the “Harvard Cheating Scandal.” This story is so big that it’s eclipsed the Twilight cheating scandal. Within days of the breaking story, several of the 125 students implicated in the case began issuing anonymous statements defending themselves.
They aren’t denying the charge of cheating; their arguments are that, one, the course made them do it, and that, two, despite the fact that the final exam (available online at www.thecrimson.com) explicitly stated “[S]tudents may not discuss the exam with others,” the instructions were “confusing.”
Why was this exam, in the words of one student from “Intro to Congress,” so “blurry” and “murky,” as students told Mary Carmichael of The Boston Globe? The student’s rationale has to do with the unfortunate use of “etc.,” which appears two times in the lists of what is not permissible.
If there is one phrase that should never appear on an exam or a syllabus, it’s et cetera, for that way only danger lies. Exams have become increasingly detailed and fraught -- for the ones creating them.
That is why my exam instruction sheets have grown in length to well over a single-spaced page (not including the rubric -- a separate full-length page), with reminders to a 300-level class of English majors to “Provide a clear thesis statement! Remember that specific supporting evidence will make your argument stronger! Cite all class and outside sources using MLA format!" In other words, leave nothing to chance -- or to possible future litigation. Those instruction sheets are downright brief, however, compared to the syllabuses that I produce for the start of each semester. The Harvard situation has also raised the specter of the inadequate syllabus; at eight pages, the “Intro to Congress” syllabus is now being found lacking.
The syllabuses that I received as a graduate student rarely reached two pages. There were none for my courses in undergraduate school. At some point during a session, the professor would announce the reading for the next class or inform us that a paper would be due in two weeks or four weeks. This last announcement might be accompanied by a few notes jotted on the blackboard — a far cry from contemporary syllabuses, however, which are required and which tend to be long. Very long.
On the subject of attendance, here is the 1976 version from the first syllabus that I designed, as a graduate teaching assistant for a freshman English class:
Attendance: Attendance is required. You are allowed two absences.
Here is the 2012 version from my seven-page syllabus (not my longest effort -- I once actually produced an 11-page syllabus):
Attendance Policy: Students are expected to attend class regularly [should you attend class, you will hear my lecture on avoiding passive voice]. If you must miss a class, please make certain that I have any work that is due on that date. You are allowed two absences. This includes medical and sports absences, so plan your cuts carefully. [I repeat:] More than two absences will affect your final grade. For each additional absence, you will lose 1/3 of a letter grade; thus, if your course average is a “C” and you have three absences, your final grade for the course will be C-. Five absences will result in a grade of F. Excessive lateness (more than 20 minutes) and early departures will count as absences. If you think that you will have a serious time conflict, please let me know in the first days of the semester.
One reason for syllabus inflation might be the ease of technological production. Released from the tyranny of the typewriter and (shudder) the mimeograph machine, it is possible for syllabus-crafters to go on and on. Of course, the new order of the syllabus is clearly related to the relentless churning of assessment materials. (Meanwhile, assignments have shrunk: that first course of mine required seven papers; now I ask for five papers in writing-intensive classes. The length of a syllabus seems inversely proportional to the amount of work demanded.)
The expanded syllabus is also an attempt to anticipate any and all possible complaints and/or lawsuits from disgruntled students/disgruntled students’ parents that might arise during or after the semester. Some items are suggested or even mandated by colleges; others grow out of faculty members’ experiences. The result is one more bloated “document” whose tone veers from kindness (“Please note the following assignments”; “Please let me know...”) to alarming game-show-host exuberance (“Welcome to English 200!”) to equally frightening faux-legalism (lists of outcomes and goals; a “matrix” of the “relation of assessment to outcomes and goals”; and policies on everything from plagiarism to snow days).
It’s easy to become lost in the production of course syllabuses: with the word-count of a novella, the syllabus takes on a life of its own. There’s a sort of magical thinking, or madness, that flourishes, as in the belief that this time I will create the perfect syllabus, which will guarantee perfect performances by perfect students. And surely this time I have anticipated every single question -- I have taken care of every single thing that can go wrong (“A late entrance of more than 20 minutes will count as an absence”; “The work that you produce for this course must be new work -- it may not be work that you have produced for another course”; “Simply copying someone else’s blog entry is plagiarism”; “I will personally contact you if class is canceled because of a natural disaster.”)
As I was finishing up my syllabus for the college where I now work as an adjunct, I asked my husband, “Should I include a note saying that no animals were harmed in the making of this syllabus?”
“You can’t,” he said. “Don’t you remember how you made the cat wait outside the door and how you yelled at him through the window?”
“I wasn’t myself,” I told him. “You know I was dealing with an especially tricky part of the information section on cell phone use.”
The resulting “document” seems closer to a mutual-fund prospectus than to an introduction to a college class. But it’s a vicious cycle. If we deliver any less than what we do now, our postmodern students, acclimated to having every concern handled for them, will add that to their list of grievances. As for the Harvard situation, perhaps the best resort would be to require the offending students to take a make-up oral exam; an ad hoc committee might want to start crafting the test instructions now.
Carolyn Foster Segal is an adjunct at Muhlenberg College.
The September 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and subsequent responses from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been powerful and painful reminders: The extraordinary individuals who become U.S. foreign service officers, as surely as those who join the armed forces, offer not only their skills and expertise but sometimes their very lives to advance United States interests. They are truly in the nation’s service — sometimes in workaday posts, and sometimes in places that become the front lines.
I was on a university campus recruiting applicants for the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowships when I learned of the rage erupting in the Middle East. Like millions, I was stunned by news of the violent attack on the Benghazi consulate resulting in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American officials. I felt deep hurt for the victims and their families, and sadness for all Libyans, who have been struggling along with Ambassador Stevens and his team to help Libya complete its transition from decades of dictatorship toward democracy, market economy, and integration with global institutions.
I did not know Ambassador Stevens, but having served as a U.S. ambassador, I know his work. I know how hard it is to help an unstable country in a volatile region through so difficult a transition. Persistent ignorance, hatred, and intolerance in that region — and among some in our own country — continue to ignite and fuel the passion that triggered the violence we witnessed last week and the protests we continue to see in several other countries. The phrase "flash point" is, perhaps, overused. Still, there can be no doubt that in these times, more than ever, even a momentary lack of thought, care, and understanding can lead to widespread and devastating consequences.
While addressing university students in a beginning Arabic language class early on September 12, I underscored the Benghazi tragedy as exactly the reason to continue toward advanced studies in Arabic, and to use that knowledge of Arabic language and cultures in the Middle East creatively to foster greater cross-cultural knowledge, interaction, cooperation, and tolerance at home and abroad. More than this, given the complexity and sometimes the risky nature of relations among all our international allies, potential partners, and competitors, these events demonstrate how urgently we need thoughtful and well-prepared young people to take up the challenge of serving their country.
Recent studies have suggested that, while many young Americans recognize the scope and weight of global issues, too few have a clear understanding of those issues, or of our nation’s place and our partners in them. Even fewer have actually committed themselves to study closely the range of concerns that the United States’ relations with the world represent, or to take a hand, personally, in conducting international business, forming international understandings, and leading international initiatives. Then again, many of the same studies lead us to believe that too few young people think they themselves can actually do much about large-scale concerns.
Ambassador Stevens knew that individuals can and do change relationships between nations, one person at a time. Stories abound of the ways in which he reached out to individual Libyans living among them and getting to know them, their culture, their personal concerns — all in the framework of a sophisticated understanding of the historical, economic, social, cultural, and religious dynamics that shape their lives and their connections with the United States.
This kind of expertise comes from rigorous, determined preparation, from a genuine openness to other cultures, and from deep personal commitment to serve. I see those qualities in the passionate young people I meet on college campuses. I believe that they can and will reach beyond themselves to serve in global affairs, given the opportunity and encouragement to do so, and with the confidence offered by role models like Ambassador Stevens.
I told those university students that there is so much more work to do in this regard in the greater Middle East and throughout the world. The Benghazi tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to young people that they are urgently needed to pursue United States interests and support its relationships worldwide. It should bolster their determination to use their diplomatic talents, experiences, and wise judgment to strive even more vigorously for a more peaceful, secure, democratic, tolerant, and prosperous world. It should demonstrate to them that one person — any one of them, every one of them — can make that difference.
James I. Gadsden is a retired career foreign service ambassador who served as U.S. ambassador to Iceland. He is currently a senior counselor for international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation
Submitted by Anonymous on September 18, 2012 - 3:00am
Improving college and career readiness among our high school students is one of the great imperatives facing our nation. To meet this challenge, educators, policymakers and business leaders are working to increase students’ academic skills through a host of national and state initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards.
While it goes without question that students need strong academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education, our research indicates that “college readiness” must be more broadly conceived. In a recent study, we interviewed almost 200 community college faculty, staff and students. These interviews made abundantly clear that certain non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes are equally germane to college success.
Non-academic college readiness is only peripherally discussed by practitioners and policymakers. It remains poorly articulated, leaving new college students unclear about the expectations they will face, and high school and college practitioners unable to help them truly prepare. As educators aim to make the academic skills needed for college readiness clear and measurable, they must do the same for non-academic skills.
In our recent research, we identified four specific areas -- academic habits, cultural know-how, the ability to balance school and other demands and engaging in help-seeking -- in which college faculty had clear expectations of their students. These expectations differed substantively from those in high school, and while meeting them was critical to college success, they remained largely unspoken.
Many college instructors think they already clearly articulate their expectations to students, but our research indicates that behavioral expectations must be made far more explicit and precise. As one student we spoke to -- who dropped out after her second semester -- told us: “they didn’t tell me what to expect, so I didn’t know what to do!” Overall, the evidence points to the need for active, scaffolded guidance so that students can develop the behaviors and strategies exhibited by effective college students.
Take “studying,” for example. College instructors often tell students they must “study hard” for their class. But in high school, studying usually entails completing nightly homework, taking biweekly tests, and completing short-term assignments. College “studying,” in contrast, means completing work independently -- even if the teacher doesn’t collect or grade it. It means reviewing a syllabus at the beginning of a course, developing a plan to complete long-term projects and studying large amounts of material for infrequent exams.
Students who meet the college expectation of studying hard use strategies such as breaking their syllabus into small chunks of material to learn at regularly scheduled intervals, and taking notes in the margins of their textbooks while reading. Instructors should explain these successful behaviors to students on the first day of class, and regularly remind them of these and other important skills, such as recognizing when they need help, and asking for assistance rather than waiting for it to be offered.
To make their expectations sufficiently explicit and actionable, instructors will have to first spend time reflecting upon the non-academic behaviors and skills they expect of their students. Once they have identified their own expectations, instructors can make these clear to students and develop assignments that will help students learn to employ the necessary behaviors. For example, when an instructor asks students to “come to class prepared,” what does she mean? If she means coming to class having completed a reading and being prepared to participate in discussions about it, she can include this expectation in the syllabus, explain it to students from the first day of class, and assign students to write out three questions or observations about the reading to discuss each week.
Institutions can formalize this process by asking entire departments or disciplines to similarly identify and explicate the unspoken expectations to which students are held. Conversations about behavioral expectations could be conducted as part of program review, professional development or the creation of learning outcomes. Importantly, institutions must then make these newly identified non-academic expectations clear to current and future students -- by embedding them into course syllabi and structuring orientation, outreach activities and success courses around them.
Colleges should also work with high schools and state education policymakers to ensure that these non-academic readiness standards are incorporated into ongoing local and state college readiness initiatives. Senior-year transition courses, college-high school partnership programs and Common Core implementation are all avenues through which non-academic collegiate expectations can be clearly communicated to students, and successful skills and behaviors can be taught.
The bottom line is that educators must stop blaming students for breaking rules that they do not know exist. Until students are told the concrete ways college and high school are different, and provided strategies for how they might meet new expectations, there is a danger that all the focus on academic readiness will not lead to real change in students’ postsecondary achievement.
Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork
Melinda Mechur Karp is senior research associate and Rachel Hare Bork is a research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.