Effective learning environments are...
At the beginning of the 20th century, IQ tests were celebrated as a fair way to classify and then sort students into educational categories or tracks based on talents that many assumed were genetically determined. When children had learning difficulties, they are referred to a school psychologist who uses a range of IQ and achievement tests to locate the source of the problem. It was assumed from the outset that the child "owns" the problem. He or she is said to be learning disabled, a slow learner, or have an educational handicap.
Recent neurocognitive research suggests that the richness of early learning experiences affects the physical development of the brain and may be a major cause of intellectual development. If these new theories linking learning experiences with brain development come to be accepted, the optimal match between characteristics of the learner and the learning environment, rather than parental genetic code, might be seen as responsible for school success.
The narrow context that we currently call school is effective for some students, but if the task is to educate all children, it may be necessary to restructure the learning environment. It might be time to replace school psychologists with school sociologists prepared to view learning problems in terms of a fit between the conditions of learning and the needs of learners. The school would share ownership of the problem and the solution would be to find a more optimal learning context. New forms of assessment would be necessary to understand the fit between the learner and the context and the teacher.
Students learning in most schools are currently assessed by short-answer, quick-timed, standardized achievement tests. Much less effort has been expended on matching these tests to curriculum standards. Instead they serve to reward schools with children from high socioeconomic backgrounds and threaten schools who face the most challenging social problems.
The Internet contributes to assessment in the following ways:
Digital portfolios created by students and teachers can be found on the Web accompanied with a rationale for why this process is so important to learning. Students can also find structured help to prepare for high stakes SAT testing. And the Internet provides instant access to the results of high stake testing at the state, national and international levels.
For the most part, however, using the computing power of the Internet to design new forms of student and teachers assessment is in its infancy. The research tools listed on this conference website are each, in their own way, moving us ahead in this process.
Another development that is not listed is the use of computing power to assess the quality of writing. Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) is a mathematical/statistical technique for evaluating written text by extracting and representing the similarity of meaning of words and passages. Knowledge Analysis Technologies is currently exploring ways of making this technology available in a program called the Intelligent Essay Assessor. A tool like this used by students to evaluate the quality of their work could provide important feedback for editing and revision. Students often feel that their grade is a subjective assessment of how much their teacher likes or dislikes them. The Intelligent Essay Assessor is currently being used with some success to improve the writing of undergraduates(Foltz, Laham, & Landauer, 1999). I have some concerns that the underlying matching of students work to content text or expert essays will fail to reward metaphorical writing but, even with this concern, I think that this type of tool under the control of the students could be very useful. Even if these tools for understanding a good conceptual essay are not foolproof, they can provide a way to examine, discuss and compare writing samples of k-12 students (Stahl, dePaula, and the LSA Research Group, 2000).
Instead of investing our time and resources in high stakes testing that simply ranks schools, we need assessment tools that can be used throughout the school year to monitor both individual and group learning. Not pencil and paper tests, but tasks that require thoughtful work, provide multiple paths to problem solving and promote deep understanding. Participation in these network activities can be analyzed for evidence of student achievement and these records used for student and school report cards. In this way learning and testing are complimentary components of the same process. SRI International is developing some interesting prototypes for new forms of assessment that are described in Developing Assessments for Tomorrow’s Classrooms.
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