A Technological Solution to Prerequisite Skills

Meeting the Needs by John Adsit

The Problem of Prerequisite Skills

She was a grade 5-6 multi-age teacher, and she was frustrated. She had just graded a basic multi-digit multiplication test. Most of the students had done well, but a large number had done poorly. There was no one in the middle. She suddenly had a revelation. All the students who did poorly were new to her this year—all the rest had been with her the year before. She looked at the poor tests more carefully and then realized those students were mostly missing the same questions.

What could it be about those questions? She studied them and realized that they all had a 0 (zero) somewhere in the digits. It only took a few more minutes to realize that the students were all treating multiplication by zero as if it were multiplication by one. She realized that she had not taught the zero multiplication rule to this group. She took them aside and gave them a quick lesson, after which they repeated the test with high scores.

How much student failure is caused by teaching students something that assumes they already have skills they do not indeed have?  As this true story above illustrates, sometimes a very small and easily-taught skill can be all that is required to lift a student from failure to success. Unfortunately, few of us have the time that this teacher took on this one test, and even then, it took a certain amount of luck for her to spot the problem. How many similar potential revelations passed by her unnoticed?

Although intelligent curriculum design can solve many of these problems, this is the area where developing technology may be able to do the most good in the coming years.

One of my first reviews of an online curriculum was for AP Language and Composition, a course students frequently take in their junior year. In the very first unit, the students did a reading, after which they were required to write an essay in which they explained the author’s use of rhetorical devices in the piece. The unit had no instruction in rhetorical devices.  This curriculum writer was from a prestigious, high achieving school so, perhaps, he was used to students walking into his class with the ability to complete this assignment, but I would bet that at least 90% of the juniors in America have never seen the phrase rhetorical devices before.

A little common sense in curriculum design goes a long way—don’t expect too much prior learning before a course begins. Once we pass that hurdle, though, we see how technology can help. If we can examine every course and lesson we teach and identify the prerequisite skills, we can then create a list of those skills. If the course writer expects students entering a class to be familiar with rhetorical devices, then that should be included in the course plan. Once we have such a list, we can create pre-tests to ensure students have the necessary skills to complete the course.

A Technological Solution

This is where technology can really help. We could create a library of learning objects for these critical skills. Students who need assistance with a prerequisite skill would be directed to a lesson to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible. A curriculum designer planning a lesson would identify the skills necessary for success. Some of them would be taught in the lesson itself, but others that should have been learned previously would be omitted. When students have not had the prior learning, they would be directed to the necessary learning object for remediation.

Ultimately, in many cases, the technology would make this happen automatically. Someday a computer analysis of a multiplication test will be able to indicate that students failed because they did not know how to multiply by zero, and it will direct those students to an appropriate lesson.  We have some basic programs in math and reading that do some of this already, but this feature is rarely integrated into regular online classes at this time. Furthermore, it usually requires students to leave the regular class and enter a separate program, a process that does not work well for a variety of reasons. In the future, all such learning must be integrated into one learning package.

But even with today’s technology much of this can be done.  We can create that library of learning objects easily right now, and we can direct students to appropriate lessons right now. We can adopt instructional policies that reward students who use these processes to reach higher levels of achievement rather than punish them for starting at a lower level.

All we need is the will to do it.

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