By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries with keyword: check for use
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Monday, August 31, 2015

Check for use

It is common practice to check for understanding after a student has been exposed to new material. And despite the complaints that too much time is spent in classrooms preparing for high stakes tests, frequent testing is one of the most effective ways to improve student performance.

I am in favor of another kind of check: check for use. Does the student understand how to apply what she has learned? Is she aware of where it should be applied and where it should not? I am enthusiastic about project-based-learning because it starts with the notion of putting new learning to use. Projects put new knowledge and skills into context and they are strong motivators for the student to fill in gaps and improve skills.

When I was a junior in college my major was engineering physics. I was drawn to it by the "engineering" but after more than three years it was quite clear that the emphasis was on the "physics". I complained to my faculty advisor that after all that time I still didn't even know how a trasistor worked. (What I meant was, how to make a useful transistor circuit.) He, a physics professor, replied that transistors are really complex so I shouldn't expect to know how they work in so few years of schooling. (He was right from a quantum mechanics point of view.)

Transistors are complex at the quantum mechanical level which makes them work but that complexity is unnecessary to understand if you are just building an amplifier or digital switch. You can build these by connecting the battery plus to this wire, minus to that wire, and put a resistor there and there. You have made something useful.

Use is one of the great advantages of learning online today. In most cases it seems that learning starts with use. I want to replace my car's a/c fan or make orange chicken or improve the effectiveness of advertizing...the first thing I'll do is look for how-tos online. My online learning is guaranteed to be related to use.

A course usually starts from the other end: here is a body of knowledge that will be imparted to the student through the course. There are learning objectives. But to be really effective, there should be use objectives as well. And just as checks for understanding should be made frequently through the course, so should checks for use, both to ensure that the student knows what to do with what he has learned and to motivate learning by emphasizing its value.

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Keywords: check for use, PBL

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