Friday, December 16, 2005

Look what the cat drug in!

So I'm unpacking the last boxes for my office yesterday, and I came across the craziest thing. In my first class with David Merrill, he asked us the first day, "What makes something instructional?" He then told us to write our answer up. Well, I found my response. I must say that for my first (or second) semester in the field, my response was both incredilbly naive and at the same time really pretty good. I wrote:
"What makes something instructional?

"I've been wondering this a lot lately. Most of the work I do deals with web-based instruction. Lately I've been wondering, however, if I am helping design effective instruction for the web. It seems like a lot of what I have been doing is designing online textbooks and workbooks. I don't really feel like that is instructional. Knowledge might be disseminated to a degree, but I don't know that any real learning is taking place.

"I think that real instruction and learning takes place when there is thinking taking place. I think both student and teacher have to think for learning to take place. Let me give an example: I was evaluating a web-based course the other day, and I pointed out a problem in the lesson. The questions the students were asked to answer weren't challenging them to think. Just like many textbooks or workbooks, all a student needed to do to answer the questions was to read them adn then go back and find the answers in the content. I don't agree with that. I keep telling the writers to make the students apply the knowledge. Don't allow them (the students) to simply regurgitate knowledge. Make them think.

"I know that it is hard to do. You can't know how each student will respond to everything. But I think that making students think helps things be truly instructional.

"I had a statistics class this summer. For part of our grade, we had workbook exercises to complete. I didn't learn anything. Why? Because it had no challenging areas for me to think. For example, in each chapter we had a few pages of fill-in-the-blank questions. The problem was, however, that the answers were right next to the blanks!

"That's what I want to avoid when designing my courses. How would I have made the workbooks better? Well, I probably would have written the questions better and not put the answers next to the blanks. Again, being redundant, I would have made the students think."

Boy, some of that sounds a far cry from my staunch behaviorist views now.

At any rate, after we all wrote those David Merrill gave an incredible lecture on what he thinks makes something instructional. And after all these years, I agree with him--it holds up. What did he say makes the difference?

The ability to practice.

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