MOOCs are hot, but do they work?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, but how much are MOOC students learning?

Community college students are more likely to drop out of online classes and earn lower grades, a new study finds.

Lose that yellow highlighter

The most common study techniques — marking up the textbook with yellow highlighter, rereading and cramming at the last minute — are the least effective, writes John Dunlosky,  Kent State psychology professor, on the AFT blog. Taking practice tests and spreading out studying over time is much more likely to help students learn and remember, researchers have found.

Table 1: Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed

 Other study techniques are “promising” but unproven:

Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.

Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

Among the less-useful strategies are: rereading the text, highlighting and underlining, summarizing, using mnemonics and “attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.”

We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

School is bad for kids

School is a prison that’s damaging our kids, argues Peter Gray on Salon. A psychology professor at Boston College, Gray is the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life.

“Children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school,” Gray writes.

The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else.

Most students “lose their zest for learning” — especially in math and science — by middle or high school, he writes.

. . . people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

Children’s “amazing drive and capacity to learn” is turned off by coercive schooling, Gray argues. Our schools teach children “that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.”

When children direct their own learning, their “natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood,” he writes.

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More homeschooling families are encouraging self-directed learning, he writes. Others are turning to “democratic” schools where children educate themselves, while having opportunities to socialize. For example, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass. lets students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, do what they wish all day, as long as they don’t break school rules designed to keep peace and order.

Sippican Cottage agrees: Public schools are “reeducation camps for people that weren’t educated in the first place, maybe, or little prisons, or pleasure domes for creepy teachers, or places where tubby women work out their neuroses about eating on helpless children at lunchtime — but there’s not much schooling going on in school.”

When a California principal told students to drop to one knee before being dismissed, parents protested and the policy was abandoned. What some called “taking a knee,” others saw as kneeling before the principal.

How to measure preschool quality

Advocates for preschool always say they want “high-quality” preschool. Preschool quality can be measured, but not the way states are trying to do it, writes Daniel Willingham. Most have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs) that measure inputs, such as class size and teachers’ education, rather than looking at what children are learning.

QRIS scores don’t predict student learning, concludes a new study published in Science.

It takes a trained observer in the classroom to evaluate quality, writes Willingham. That costs a lot more than counting inputs. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which evaluates interactions between teacher and child, is a good — but not cheap — measure of quality, he writes. (It’s labeled “interactions” in this graph.)


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Sara Mead has more on the problems with QRIS and the need to observe what’s actually going on in preschool classrooms.

Washington D.C. charter preschools and pre-K programs will be evaluated on reading and math scores, writes Sam Chaltain.

Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being Tested. In Reading and Math. With High Stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

Universal preschool is nearly a reality in D.C., where 88 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in preschool programs and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child.

Math and reading will count for 60 to 80 percent of a school’s rating. If schools “opt-in” to adding a measure of social and emotional growth, it will count for 15 percent of the score for preschool and pre-K and 10 percent for kindergarten.

Charters already are using these assessments, responds Scott Pearson, who chairs the D.C. Public Charters School Board. “Many school leaders are reluctant to have significant portions of an evaluation of their school be based on an assessment of their students’ social and emotional development” because valid measures haven’t been well-established, he writes.

Early childhood programs routinely assess children without them realizing it’s a “test,” Chaltain writes. But these assessments have high stakes attached. Charters need a high ranking to raise money, acquire facilities and recruit families. They’ll be pressured to concentrate on raising reading and math scores.

‘My favorite no’

In what she calls “my favorite no,” math teacher Leah Alcala shows students how to learn from mistakes.

NYC will subsidize preschool loans

Should Upper Middle Class Tots Get Subsidized Student Loans for Pre-School? asks the New York Observer.

I thought it was a joke, but no.

City Council speaker Christine Quinn, who’s running for mayor, announced a council initiative to offer middle and upper-middle class parents subsidized loans for daycare and preschool.

“Early childhood education is one of the most important investments a parent can make,” said Ms. Quinn in a statement about the program. “But too often, quality child care is out of reach for middle class families. The Middle Class Child Care Loan Initiative is a smart program that will help parents pay for child care and give New York City’s next generation a jump start on their education.”

Families earning $80,000 to $120,000 a year will be able to borrow up to $11,000 a year at 6 percent interest for kids between the ages of two and four. In theory, less affluent parents can access subsidized child care, but the cutoff is $53,707 for a family of three and $64,762 for a family of four,  according to the Observer.

There’s also the question of whether giving a family earning $190,000 a year a pre-school subsidy will level the playing field, or make it even more unequal. Ostensibly, rather than making the difference between sending a child to preschool or keeping him at home, such loans might be used more to help the middle class’s upper crust pay for elite preschools, putting more distance between very young children in a city that is already plagued by income inequality and where competition for gifted and talented slots is incredibly fierce and many would argue, unfair, given the intense coaching and drilling engaged in by families who can afford it.

Preschool doesn’t teach children from educated families anything they’re not already learning at home. It’s fun for most kids to play with others. But it’s not the difference between academic success and failure — or even between the Ivy League and State U.

In San Jose, Harker, a high-achieving private school, is opening a preschool that will charge $22,000 a year. The Mercury News story gushes:

A mural-and-mosaic entrance, multicolored floor tiles and light-filled rooms welcome families. And of course, this tiny-tot heaven features a sandbox, play kitchen and lawns wide enough to do, perhaps, 75 somersaults in a row.

. . . preschoolers will choose from an array of activities based on their interest at the moment. As kids explore, teachers facilitate social skills and encourage curiosity, discovery and problem-solving.

I’ve never seen nor heard of a preschool that didn’t encourage play, exploration, creativity  and learning how to get along with others. This one will have lovely facilities, teachers with advanced degrees — and the children of highly educated, well-to-do Silicon Valley parents, who hope preschool admission will help their kids get into Harker.

Missed lessons of Monsters U

A prequel to the popular Monsters Inc., Pixar/Disney’s new Monsters University is a Revenge of the Nerds ripoff featuring young Mike and Scully learning to be “scarers.” Pixar’s team “missed the chance to say something more interesting,” writes Rick Hess.

The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that “everyone is special,” he dejectedly mumbles, “then no one is,” while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade “graduation” is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University . . .  it’s not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol’ MU.

The movie “seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless,” writes Hess. “At a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft.”

Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the “scaring” professor. With that kind of talent, you’d seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe’s wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they’ve never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I’d have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline — or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils.

I like the Monsters University web site. The admissions page calls MU “a place for self-discovery, curiosity, and scholarship,” but warns only a fraction of applicants are admitted.  In addition to scaring, MU offers “academically rigorous” programs in scream energy, door technology and business, as well as “holistic training for the mind, body, and spirit.”

The message from the dean stresses MU’s diversity, which does indeed seem to be a strength.

If I Were a Black Kid…

Despite being kicked out of high school for assaulting a teacher, Ta-Nehisi Coates is asked often to speak to predominantly black schools, he writes in If I Were a Black Kid…  in The Atlantic. Teachers, including his mother, hope he’ll be able to inspire their students.

What I generally try to do is avoid messages about “hard work” and “homework,” not because I think those things are unimportant, but because I think they put the cart before the horse. The two words I try to use with them are “excitement” and “entrepreneurial.” I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.

Black kids often are told to pursue education so they won’t get shot or go to prison, Coates writes. That’s not enough, he thinks. They need to know that “every subject they study has the potential to open up a universe.”

A senior editor at The Atlantic, Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.

Testing college motivation

Colleges are trying out an online college readiness exam called SuccessNavigator that claims to measure motivation, self-management and “grit.”

Open-access colleges are under pressure to graduate more students while spending less. But completion-boosting strategies may not be cost effective and cost-cutting strategies may raise the cost per degree.

Also: It’s the learning, stupid.