A Background Study for a Workshop to be given at the Association of Experiential Education’s International Conference, November 2002
Department of Kinesiology & Physical Education
University of Northern Colorado
Teaching, in my estimation, is a vastly overrated function… I see the facilitation of learning as the aim of education. Carl Rogers (Rogers & Freiberg J., 1983/1994)
By looking at contemporary theory on how humans learn, and investigating current thought on the assessment of learning this paper will examine the effectiveness of using a logbook for guiding learning and assessing student’s progress. It will define what the author means by the word logbook and through linking the theory with the author’s own observations explore why the author believes the logbook to be a worthy and useful teaching and assessing tool.
The real goal of teaching is to persuade students to initiate their internal learning processes. (p. 26 Leamnson, 1999)
A group of students who have for days or weeks been quite content in their learning, eager to gain new skills and knowledge for the sheer exhilaration of self development are now a different animal. They pace anxiously, quizzing each other competitively to gauge their place in the future pecking order. Knowing that they are about to be tested and graded, they exude a tension that leaves them unrecognizable from the people they were a few hours earlier. Since I have been teaching in the United States this exaggerated condition of which I was not previously aware has become the norm in my observations of pre test students. While I am not claiming that test anxiety does not exist in the UK it appears neither as rampant, nor so fierce.
The question I always find myself asking when subjected to this atmosphere is, why? Why do human beings have to go through this? What benefits are gained having experienced these feelings and emotions? Are they worth it? This paper intends to explore some of these issues: What is the value of testing? Are there humane alternatives that achieve the same goals? Do tests and examinations provide a resource for the future; are there other forms of assessment that do?
By investigating what various sciences are currently learning about learning we can assess assessment, its worth and techniques that can be utilised to create an environment that both engages and encourages long term learning.
How humans learn:
A history of the understanding of learning:
Philosophers and scientists have always been fascinated by how we develop as humans and extensively investigated the processes we know as learning. However, along with technology there has been a huge recent flux in our understanding of learning; the increase seemingly exponential. When society progressed from an agrarian paradigm to an industrial one, western education was lifted from the realms of the church and a new factory based archetype was instilled. This system which was highly effective for the workforce that it was training was built on rote and discipline. Since this time society has evolved rapidly from being an industrial to a post industrial technologically based one. Education on the other hand has been a little slower to change, mainly due to the work of Thorndike and then Skinner reinforcing the behaviourist beliefs that humans learn through conditioning. (Ormrod J., 1995/1999)
In the latter part of the twentieth century, contemporary educators became increasingly frustrated by the constraints of behaviourism and sought ways to prove the humanist education philosophies of John Dewey, William James and later Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. The investigations of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner and other ‘constructivist’ researchers have provided much data for this movement.
As the twenty first century gathers momentum there is a groundswell that sees more researchers working with teachers, and researchers coming from an increasing number of fields and their data converging.
Cognitive psychology leads us to an understanding of competent performance and the principles of knowledge organisation. Developmental researchers continue to find out more about the stages of reasoning and are creating curricula that engage advanced reasoning at early ages. Research on learning and transfer has uncovered important principles for structuring learning experiences that allow people to take this learning to new settings. Social and cognitive psychology and anthropology are illustrating how learning takes place in settings that contain sets of cultural and social norms and expectations which in turn affect learning and its transfer. Neuroscience is starting to provide evidence for many principles of learning and indicate how learning affects the physical structure of the brain and its functional organisation. Add to this action research where teachers are collaborating with researchers and designing their own classroom research along with ever emerging technologies and we set the stage for a greater depth of new understanding. (Blandford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000/2001)
What the research says:
In their book Classroom Instruction that Works, Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering and Jane Pollock use meta-analysis to list nine proven teaching techniques and discuss the research and its implications for the classroom. The strategies they consider include:
1. identifying similarities and differences,
2. summarising and note taking,
3. reinforcing effort and providing recognition,
4. homework and practice,
5. non-linguistic representations,
6. cooperative learning,
7. setting objectives and providing feedback,
8. generating and testing hypotheses,
9. cues, questions and advance organisers.
This list is not new but by providing statistical effect sizes and percentile gains they demonstrate how significant these strategies are in increasing student performance. (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock ., 2001)
Brain based education is founded on the research of neuroscience. Renate and Geoffrey Caine in their seminal work of interpreting this data Making Connections, list a series of twelve principles:
- The brain is a parallel processor – it is always doing many things at any one time.
- Learning engages the entire physiology – it can either be inhibited or facilitated by stress, health, comfort, exercise, nutrition, movement, etc.
- The search for meaning is innate – making sense of our experiences and acting on this is automatic.
- The search for meaning occurs through patterning – meaningful organisation and categorisation of information.
- Emotions are critical to patterning – we are influenced by emotions and the way we feel. Emotions and cognition cannot be separated.
- The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously – due to the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain we both reduce information into parts and perceive information as a whole at the same time.
- Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception – all stimuli are incorporated by learners from sounds, smells and environments to body language.
- Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes – reflection and metacognitive activities are the key to good learning.
- We have at least two different types of memory: A spatial memory system and a set of systems for rote learning – facts and skills that are dealt with in isolation are organised differently by the brain and need more practice and rehearsal.
- We understand and remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory.
- Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
- Each brain is unique. (Caine & Caine, 1991/1994)
Eric Jensen has also taken the work of neuro-science, cognitive psychology and other disciplines and placed it in a format that is accessible to teachers. His sources are very different to Mazarno yet they describe a similar picture. Among the findings that he presents are the following:
- Calm states, created by rituals & predictable activities increase learning attention, energy or motivation is increased by novelty within this structure.
- Movement and activity stimulate the brain.
- The brain needs feedback from its own activities for optimal learning. This does not have to come from a teacher but can take the form of personal reflection.
- Increased student choice and control leads to better learning.
- Real life tasks facilitate better understanding.
- Learners in positive, joyful environments are likely to experience enhanced learning, memory, and feelings of self-esteem.
- Goal setting increases performance.
- When prior learning is activated, the brain is more likely to make connections to the new material.
- There is faster learning with pre-exposure. (Jensen, 1995/2000)
If this information is coupled with the experiential learning cycles as proposed by Dewey and built on by the work of Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, Carl Jung, David Kolb, (Kolb, 1984) and Bernice McCarthy (1996/2000), then we have some concrete models from which to reflect on the act of teaching.
Utilising the strategies and points previously noted we can see that current methods of testing are severely limited and if our focus is actually on educating then testing is not the best way to help the learning process.
What is assessment?
Assessment can be so many things from positive and wanted / needed feedback to a negative stress inducer. The New Webster’s dictionary defines the verb assess as, “to judge the value or worth of” and says of the noun assessment that it is, “an estimation”. So already if we are to look at the semantics of the word we see that assessment is both subjective and also potentially inaccurate.
There are three major types of assessment:
Summative assessment – assesses an individual’s achievement.
Formative assessment – centres upon assisting learning.
Evaluatory assessment – looks at how a program is doing.
The crucial question seems to be what is driving the assessing process and is the assessment actually a reflection of this driving force?
If our assessment is truly aiding the teaching and learning process then it will either be formative or evaluatory and the process of assessing will be instilled to provide constructive feedback to either the student or the teacher. As such it is merely a check in: How are we doing? If used humanely, this should not be threatening as it is purely a reflection of how much has been learned. This information can then be used for future guidance and is necessarily designed for a small audience. Formative assessment is also used as extrinsic motivation, although researchers appear to be in two minds about recognition as a motivator for learning. It is however safe to say that in this society test results are definitely a source of prize or penalty, and consequently have a negative impact on learning.
Marzano states, “Providing recognition, as a category of instructional strategies, might be the most misunderstood of all those presented in this book.” (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). He goes on to suggest that abstract symbolic recognition is more effective than tangible rewards and that it should be personal to the student. This would imply that real understanding of both the student and their work is required to give this recognition.
A major reason for testing in our current environment is to give statistical evidence of the worth of students and schools to future employers or government. As integers are easier to compare than capabilities, performances are translated into numbers. This process has been considerably media fuelled leading society to believe that a school or pupil can be given a number representing something tangible. Does this number aid development though?
What needs to be assessed?
It is my strongly held belief that assessment should have a purpose that is based on future development. If it is merely a reflection of a student’s current understanding then it is not educational. Assessment needs to be positive feedback that enables the continuing journey of learning it should also provide a resource that far outlasts the capabilities of the short term memory. If anything is to be examined it should be a student’s ability with regards to process, rather than the regurgitation of a fact which soon disappears. Most importantly, it should be obviously useful to the student and reflect their interests, future, or life.
Put simply, students should be able to use the assessment process and its product as a resource.
For the purpose of this paper a logbook is a record of what a student did during their time with a teacher. It is guided by a handout that states the teacher’s aims and objectives for the students during the teaching session. The handout introduces the session and what can be expected and asks a number of guiding questions that will cause the students to reflect on the session. These questions are designed to cover all the stages of a learning cycle (i.e. Establishing relationships (people, environment, concepts) è Understanding the essence èSearching for usefulness è Creating personal adaptations / integrating. McCarthy, B. (1996/2000)).
Students are expected to record specific information that will be useful to them when seeking work (in the case of future outdoor instructors this might include: date, venue, weather, conditions, number in the group, role, etc.) There follows a section of prose or bullet points (depending on the emphasis on grammar), that describes what happened during the session (diary fashion). This is ensued by answers to questions that the students select from the handout. Whether the aims and objectives were met is discussed and finally, bullets indicating major learning points which act as an index and a focusing technique to help students ruminate the questions they investigate in depth.
The logbook is generally word-processed and follows a consistent layout throughout the course. Essays that are set are usually based on editing from the logbook. Presentation is important and students with artistic skills are encouraged to use any techniques they feel reflect their abilities. Visual aids are incorporated along with any form of expression that students favour but still maintain a professional or aesthetic look. While self expression is important it is stressed that students may use their logbooks as portfolios so some self induced restraint is encouraged following discussion of the logbook’s future potential.
Its purpose and considerations for its use.
The logbook is predominantly a learning tool as it aids reflection. It gives students a chance to express, examine and explore their experience (Greenaway, 1993). Furthermore, it gives teachers the ability to assess the progress of the students and give them current feedback. Moreover, it can incorporate students giving each other feedback through ‘peer read ins’ where logbooks are shared. As such it provides formative assessment. For teachers the logbook also gives a progress report on the thinking of students and helps them to gauge how to run the following sessions (Evaluatory assessment).
In particular, logbooks provide a future resource, unlike examinations they are kept and aid the recollection of various skills, thoughts and actions that were experienced. As a consistent format is maintained they are visually impressive and consequently an extremely good resource for indicating experience to future employers (Summative assessment). Of equal import is the concept that the logbook reflects a humane style of education where emphasis is not only placed on learning but also on relationships. Students value these relationships and enjoy any resource that aids its memory. In addition to this, students can work collaboratively, yet still reflect individually.
The logbook works best when it is used over a longer period of time and understanding of its use evolves. Initially, value for the logbook has to be instilled by the teacher and frequent feedback is required both by teachers and peers. By collecting them in for comment on a weekly basis, students learn how to organise themselves and plan their time successfully. It is not long however before intrinsic motivation is the driving force behind good work. In early sessions the students are also taught considerations for a good logbook and note taking during activities.
What makes the logbook a successful tool?
One really enjoyable and constructive feature is that the logbooks reflect the student and their preferred style of learning while also giving them the opportunity to experiment with other styles. Even if a method of doing the logbook is introduced, it can always be modified and specific requests for particular work can be incorporated. Moreover, it becomes easy to see where student’s strength in insight and thinking lie and during feedback they can be encouraged to experiment in other arenas by answering different questions.
My Experience with Logbooks:
As an undergraduate student of outdoor education I was expected to keep both a logbook and a diary of outdoor days. The logbook was predominantly a collection of all the equipment and techniques that we used. As such it had the style of a dry text book and was often a chore, usually completed at the eleventh hour but now acts as a source of good memories. Later, during my time (4 years) teaching on a two year vocational course in Outdoor Recreation Management (the BTEC course) where a substantial number of the students used the course as an alternative entry into university, we were able to make significant observation of logbook use and evolve it. I taught the students for two full days each week covering the practical elements of the course and they studied theory in a traditional college environment for a further two.
The logbook made up a major part of the final grade and was the most significant piece of work. However, it was not the only way of instigating learning and monitoring student progress that we incorporated. During the two years we used only one written and four competencies based practical tests. Most work was project based – making equipment (and documenting it), research for expeditions, organising expeditions, marketing the course, and an essay based on theories that we covered extensively in class. There was also a chance to be expressive through wall displays and to scientifically investigate utilizing a river survey. Observations and intuitions from this period have been backed by research that was read later.
From Marzano’s nine points, logbooks certainly incorporate summarising and note taking, effort is reinforced and recognition given both by teachers and peers through feedback, it is done as homework and practice is constant over two years with continual feedback shaping it. Through the use of diagrams and photographs, non-linguistic representations are utilised and I would now incorporate mind maps and other visual tools. Co-operative learning shapes the course and students are able to reflect on this. The logbook states each session’s goals which are then reviewed by the students. I now believe that it would also be beneficial to encourage the students to set their own goals for each session. Cue questions and advance organisers are covered by providing the whole year’s handouts in the first week and at the end of each week summarising what we have covered and what is being done the following week.
In regard to the principles proposed by the Caines: Testing, especially the high stake variety, is emotionally threatening, it therefore impedes rather than encourages learning. Material is usually stored (by successful testers) in the short term memory, which requires large efforts and is rapidly forgotten by most. The logbook provides a framework or a pattern to engage the spatial memory which lasts far longer than rote, we used Greenaway’s reviewing model: Factsè Feelings è Findings è Futures, as a way of exploring the experiences. (Greenaway, 1992)
The brain being a parallel processor is always completing many tasks at once, for instance while a teacher is talking, the student will not only be listening but also seeing if the teacher looks enthusiastic with what they are teaching, they will be deciding if they can maintain a sufficient level of comfort given the hardness of the chair, and they may be feeling good about an earlier encounter with a friend. Allowing students to reflect on feelings gives them the chance to learn from all these things.
When the Caines state that reflection and metacognitive activities are the key to good learning, and it is backed up by experiential educators then the case for logbooks is indisputable.
Eric Jensen restates some points we have noted earlier but also suggests that student control and choice leads to better learning. Through discussion and consensus students actively affected the running of the sessions and when reflecting they had total independence on what they reviewed.
Real life tasks facilitate better understanding. To highlight how the logbook worked, if we were going to investigate leadership, rather than read words (often with no real meaning as they had not been felt) from a set text, we would discuss types of leaders of which the students had experience. We would categorise them by something understood by them, perhaps they would be characters they knew (Bill Gates), a role (sergeant-major), or a personality (hippy). The students would choose a style as reflected by these categories and would lead the group for fifteen minutes role playing this style. We would then reflect on it, how it had worked, if it would work better in a different situation, what its benefits were. This would make good fodder for logbooks and relates new experiences with old which activates prior learning and makes connections.
To summarise though, I believe the logbook’s real value is a subconscious statement that says, “We value your (student’s) thoughts and opinions more than a test score. We are educators first and foremost and wish to see you develop at a rate that excites you and makes you proud. We wish to be catalysts on your own individual learning journey.”
While I believe the evidence supporting logbooks as a good teaching and assessing tool is emphatic, the question I will be asked is how do you grade them? How can you use them as evidence to satisfy the standards required from education establishments and boards and future employers? It would be very naïve to suggest that this is not entirely necessary, although in my experience this has been the case. When the BTEC course was visited by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate they said that what we were doing was “exemplary”. They focused on the humane nature of the education and how excited the students were about what they were learning. By taking some time with their inspection they could see real progress in students thinking and abilities.
Not everyone has this sort of time and some need immediately quantifiable results. If this is the case then the system I would suggest for grading is not to consider the actual content. This is personal and extremely open to subjectivity. Do I mark a student down because I do not believe the same things or think the same way? Instead I would make a matrix that indicates if they have answered a certain number of questions, reflected on the aims, illustrated their ideas or whatever criteria you have agreed with the students. Use these sheets in early review sessions so that the students know what you are looking for and use the same matrix for the final grade. Again however, the most important part of this process is giving good feedback. I use a “Praiseburger”, each piece of developmental criticism being sandwiched between two positive affirmations of something successful or worthy.
Finally, give students the opportunity to score highly by achieving specific criteria and although I have no evidence to prove it I have witnessed that they will also provide content of equal value.
Blandford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2001). How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. (Original work published 2000)
Caine, R., & Caine, G. (1994). Making Connections: Teaching and the human brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison – Wesley. (Original work published 1991)
Greenaway, R. (1992). Reviewing by Doing (Online) Available:http://www.reviewing.co.uk/articles/2rbd.htm
Greenaway, R. (1993). Playback: A guide to reviewing activities. Edinburgh, UK: The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
Jensen, E. (2000). Brain-Based Learning (Revised ed.). San Diego, CA: The Brain Store. (Original work published 1995)
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall P T R.
Leamnson, R. (1999). Thinking about teaching and learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. . (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works: Research based strategies for increasing student achievement . Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
McCarthy, B. (2000). About Learning (2nd ed.). Wauconda, IL: About Learning, Inc. (Original work published 1996)
Ormrod, J.E. (1999). Human Learning (3 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, inc.. (Original work published 1995)
Rogers, C., & Freiberg, H. J. (1994). Freedom to Learn (3rd Revised ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.. (Original work published 1983)