What ARE they learning, then?

One of the literacies the Survey course requires we teach is technical:  students are supposed to emerge from the experience capable of using the suite of four Microsoft Office tools–Excel, Word, PowerPoint and Publisher.  The premise is that these are worthy ends and I am not arguing against that. Instead, the way they’re learning is transacted and measured–online through the self-contained Onlineexpert.com of LearnKey–may have some flaws that divert students from their learning goals.

Because the bulk of the instruction comes through the same program that gives us reports on their growing proficiency, it’s an efficient, one-stop shop. No problem in the slick interface and lesson delivery–its fast, thorough, and useful.

The problem (a microcosm, perhaps of what’s wrong with the test-driven policy of the US Department of Education) is that left to their own devices (which is what the unsupervised, on-demand instruction compels), a significant number of  students are focusing their efforts narrowly–on getting a score higher than 80% on the “post-test,” which they can take as many times as they wish. The students have figured out that the post-test” questions do not vary, and so set about preparing themselves to do that–to pass the test by memorizing the correct responses. It is doubtful whether these students have understood the finer points and practical application of the program. So for these kids, the post-tested “learning” is a superficial memory game.  My partner and I have to go outside the “post-test” to understand if any real learning has transpired. This we do through a practicum test, which asks the student to demonstrate, in an un-scripted scenario, how to best use the application.

Like some national education reform, the goals of the learning may be valid, the content may be valid, and the post-test to demonstrate learning of the content may be valid for its purposes, but if the way by which students can prepare for the post-test circumvents the learning they are supposed to be getting, it becomes an invalid learning activity. Instead of being able to know how to use the application, the student who “susses” the post-test knows how to answer the test meant to measure the student’s use of the application, quite a different thing. Unless my partner and I alter the curriculum to prevent it, students can demonstrate their learning by memorizing steps for the performance of skill sets. In the same way, Testopia can remove students from the actual creating of their own knowledge, by demanding that they demonstrate a rather narrow set of competencies, which can be figured out and “demonstrated.”

Worst-case scenario in our class (without our remediation):  students have learned to memorize content, and cannot generalize from it. Worst-case scenario in our country: tested students become very competent test-takers, able to superficially “show” their knowledge growth, but unable to actually put it into use.

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