As a writer and designer of both printed booklets and online learning resources for many years, I’ve always been keenly interested in how students learn from the prepared resources. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe some of the governing factors that are considered to affect and effect student learning.
I teach Science at The Correspondence School of New Zealand (TCS), a distance education centre, perhaps the biggest school in Australasia.
Education for rural students
Founded in the early part of last century, TCS was originally a primary school providing education for students, usually living in rural areas, who were unable to attend day school simply because there was not a school near where they lived. Today TCS provides education to a wide range of learners from early childhood to senior secondary.
Support from the postal service
Traditionally students were sent modules of work in printed booklets delivered by the New Zealand postal service. Junior modules were designed as write-on-the-paper booklets. In the senior secondary school, students wrote their assignments on refill. Their booklets provided a learning text as well as assessable assignments. Once completed, students returned their assignments by post to their teachers who examined their written work. A teacher would check the student’s written assignments, monitoring the formatively assessed activities (self-assessed by the student) and evaluating the summatively assessed activities (so-called teacher-marked activities).
Much of the study and assessment is still done this way at TCS. Students are encouraged to complete all activities, including marking formative activities where they can assess their own progress.
Standard based assessment
The 1990s adoption of standard based assessment in New Zealand for the secondary education sector meant that students could receive assessment for qualifications throughout the school year, as well as by examination near the end of the year (externally assessed qualifications).
Standards are obtained at levels 1, 2 and 3. Today these standards contribute to a National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). NCEA can be obtained at levels 1, 2 and 3.
Teachers in secondary schools assess so-called internally assessed standards. Students who have been assessed in this way have opportunity for re-assessment in areas where they did not achieve a standard on first assessment.
In recent years at TCS, a move towards elearning has meant there is some study online or through other digital media such as CD or DVD. In a recent post I outlined just a few of the elearning resources used with students in Science. These usually provide direct formative feedback to the student. So instead of reading sample answers listed at the back of a booklet, the student is given more immediate and direct visual feedback related to each learning step.
The use of elearning resources provides opportunity for scaffolding and for the student to monitor his or her own development at each learning phase. Online assessment cannot be used for standard assessment, at least not in the direct sense as it is not constitutionally possible at present for a qualification to be obtained by the entry of assessable material through the keyboard. It is significant that the universal requirement for assessment towards a qualification is the skill in the use of a pen.
Students at TCS come from a huge range of differing backgrounds. The support available to them at their place of study varies, from caring supervisors who participate in the learning experiences of the students, to virtually no supervision at all. While there are some exceptional students who seem to succeed with study despite lack of support at their place of study, students generally learn best when well supervised and their supervisors take an interest in their learning development.
Students in the senior school have opportunity to learn from assessment in a number of ways:
- Formative assessment (immediate feedback)
- Summative assessment (delayed feedback)
- Re-assessment revision activities as a result of first assessment (delayed feedback)
- Practice examination (delayed feedback)
My own personal interest, from the point of view of a distance educator, has been to do with the way distance students learn. As a writer and designer of both printed booklets and online learning resources for many years, I’ve always been keenly interested in how students learn from the prepared resources. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe some of the governing factors that are considered to affect and effect student learning. A critical part of the student's learning cycle is to do with the feedback the student receives by way of assessment, either formatively or summatively.
Although mostly anecdotal, the results I've seen have been consistent over the years. But two years of gathering more formal information with two classes of online students yielded very little evidence that would conflict with the anecdotal indicators.
Here is a summary description of what I’ve found:
Students who participate regularly in formative assessment tend to be achievers. That is to say they eventually succeed in gaining some qualification, such as an internally or externally assessed standard. It is rare that a student who diligently participates in formative assessment does not achieve some standards towards a qualification. My guess here is that willingness to participate in formative assessment is firmly linked to student motivation to learn.
Not all students indicate that they have fully participated in formative assessment. Approximately 10% of students will not show anything on their returned scripts that suggest they have taken part in formative assessment of any description; that does not necessarily mean that they have not done some.
Students who are urged to participate in formative assessment, after evidence has been obtained that indicates a reluctance in this area, rarely engage fully in this activity. There are exceptions and these are most usually students with caring supervisors who are monitoring learning in the student as it progresses.
High achievers monitor their learning
Students who do not indicate that they are making use of formative assessment rarely achieve at the highest levels. Even the most successful students who achieve at the highest levels are invariably those who make full use of formative assessment. Some of my top scholars are exemplary practitioners in this aspect of study strategy. Again it appears that participation in formative assessment is linked with student motivation to learn.
Contact with the teacher either by phone, email or letter seems to have a significant influence on student engagement. This applies as much to student contact with the subject teacher as it does to contact with a teacher in a learning advisory role. Students who are well supervised at the place of study tend to respond especially well to teacher support through direct communication by phone or email. It appears that teacher-student contact tends to have a distinct motivational influence; many distance educators have made similar observations.
Prompt feedback to the student with the results of summative assessment and evaluation of assignment activities has a major motivational influence on student learning. Ormond Tate, past director of TCS, used to regularly urge teachers to assess and return assignments to students as quickly as possible. He claimed as his golden rule the 7 day turn-around for the return of assessed student material.