Exercises and Quizzes, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! We continue today with our series of posts about Exercises and Quizzes in the Tres Columnae system. As you may recall, on Monday we looked at the (overlapping) definitions of the terms Exercise and Quiz, and we thought a bit about the purposes and goals of such activities, whether in the Tres Columnae system or in a physical classroom. Yesterday, we looked at some specific examples – and in case you missed the directions, here are the simple steps so that you, too, can take a “live” look at them.

  1. Go to www.trescolumnae.com/moodle
  2. Choose the “Tres Columnae Semi-Public Sample.”
  3. Choose the “Login as a Guest” botton. Moodle will ask you for the “enrolment key” (sorry about the spelling; that’s how the folks at Moodle spell the word). Until June 1, the end of the free trial period, that key is Caeliola79 – so type that in and press the Enrol me in this course button.
  4. Check out the exercises and quizzes in Week 1, and see what you think. As a guest, you can’t take the quiz for a recorded score, but you can click the Preview link (at the top of the page) to see the questions and the possible answers.

Today we’ll consider two big, related issues: feedback loops and lesson design. First, we’ll consider how – and why – we might create a “tight feedback loop” that helps all learners achieve mastery of a new concept quickly, without the opportunity to practice errors to the point of mastery. Then we’ll consider how to incorporate such “tight feedback loops” in the context of a whole lesson, whether it’s delivered by a system like Tres Columnae or in a more conventional, teacher-led classroom. Tomorrow we’ll see an actual example of a “branching lesson” in the Tres Columnae system.

When writers on education use the term feedback loop, they are usually referring to a process in which

  • a student (or group of students) practices a concept;
  • someone (usually the teacher) checks the accuracy of their attempt; and
  • depending on how they did, they either do more of the same kinds of practice,
  • move to a higher level of practice, or
  • move on to something else because they have completely mastered the concept.

It’s a very different model from the “typical” factory-model classroom, in which no one checks on the student’s mastery of the concept until “quiz day”or “test day.” Even on those days (and you know that “test day” is Friday, right?), the focus is not on helping the learner get better at the concept; instead, the purpose of the quiz or test is to reward students who have mastered it, punish those who have not, and accumulate some grades for report cards or to show that the class is rigorous.

In his remarkable book Disrupting Class, to which I’ve referred in several previous blog posts, Clayton Christensen points out that this factory-model approach is very similar to the way that the (former) U.S. Big Three automakers handled their production lines – and the training of new employees – but it’s utterly different from the way that Japanese automakers handle quality control and employee training. He tells the story of Steven J. Spear, who now teaches economics at MIT and has written a book called Chasing the Rabbit (which I haven’t yet read). As a graduate student, Dr. Spear took jobs with a Big Three and a Japanese auto company installing seats in vehicles. At the American company, the “training” consisted of a demonstration, after which he was completely unable to install the seats correctly. At the Japanese company, by constrast, the task was broken into several steps, and Spear was able to practice Step 1 until he had thoroughly mastered it. Only then was he able to practice Step 2, and so forth. By the time he was on the assembly line, he could install the seats perfectly.

As a result, the Japanese company spent considerably less money on post-production quality control; they knew that most of the products would be correctly assembled the first time. By contrast, the American company had a small army of quality inspectors and anticipated a substantial rate of rejections and reworks. And then, no doubt, its managers wondered why the Japanese company was able to produce a better-quality product for the same (or slightly lower) price!

Sadly, American schools for too long have emulated American automakers’ approaches to quality assurance – or is it that American manufacturers borrowed their training systems from American schools? Either way, the emphasis was not on producing a defect-free product the first time. That, of course, has been changing rapidly – and by necessity – in both manufacturing and education, but old habits can be hard to break … especially when teachers and school administrators aren’t consciously aware that they are breaking old habits.

By contrast, Tres Columnae is designed “from the ground up,” so to speak, around the principles of immediate feedback and zero defects. It’s our assumption – and I’ve implemented something like this in my own face-to-face classrooms over the years – that you can and should have such expectations, and that students can and should rise to them, as a rule. In previous posts, I’ve talked about both the why and the how of creating such an environment; I won’t re-hash that today except to say that the keys are to

  • consider each step of a multi-step process;
  • demonstrate that step to the learners;
  • check for comfort and understanding;
  • practice it with them;
  • check for comfort and understanding again;
  • watch them practice;
  • continuously check for comfort and understanding; and
  • move on to the next step (or the next process or concept) as soon as the learners are both comfortable and proficient.

I wish I could claim credit for the idea, but it’s hardly original to me. Fred Jones, in his remarkable book Tools for Teaching, explains it much more fully, and it’s the cornerstone of educational approaches from Mastery Learning to Madeline Hunter’s Direct Instruction system. (Sadly, while the idea is quite prevalent, its implementation in many schools is quite another story!) But how do you transfer it to the Tres Columnae system, or to any other independent learning system, for that matter?

Let’s take a look at the sequence of activities in Lectiō Prīma at www.trescolumnae.com/moodle and see what we notice:

  1. We begin by reading, hearing, and seeing Fabella Prīma, which introduces some simple Latin words with pictures and context clues.
  2. We check our understanding with a self-assessment (a Moodle “choice” activity where we rank our comfort on a scale from 1-5).
  3. Since the focus was on vocabulary, we check learners’ ability to recognize the new words in isolation through the vocabulary-matching assignment. Like all Tres Columnae exercises and quizzes, it gives the learner immediate feedback on his or her performance.
  4. If you, the learner, continue to have difficulty, we’ll send you to the Vocabulary Practice Lesson we describe (and demonstrate) tomorrow. Otherwise, you go on to Fabella Secunda, which introduces some more words. The cycle repeats, gradually adding more complex concepts and skills; as soon as possible, you’re able to move from rote practice to creating your own original stories (and other forms of content) that use the new concept or skill.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • How does this system of feedback and skill-building compare to what you typically do in your classroom?
  • How does it compare to what your teachers typically did?
  • Do you think this is a good approach to teaching and learning, or is it too mechanical? Or, for that matter, does it give students too much responsibility for monitoring their own progress?
  • This system is built on an assumption that students,in general, want to succeed and will do so, given the proper tools and guidance. Do you agree?
  • This system is also built on an assumption that students ought to master the concepts and skills that are being presented to them. Do you agree?
  • We also have a core assumption that students should be actively engaged in learning new concepts and skills, and that active engagement will normally lead to mastery. What do you think? Do you think students have a “right to fail”or a “right to sit passively and observe,” or not?
  • And do you want to see a specific example – perhaps with something a bit more complicated than vocabulary?

If you’re yearning for specific examples, just hold on for another day or so :-), because we’ll look at such an example in tomorrow’s post. It’s created with a Moodle feature called the “branching lesson,” which I think is one of the best presentational features of the Moodle system.

Until then, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus! There’s still time to sign up for a Free Trial Subscription to the Tres Columnae project if you’re interested.

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