Political Animal


April 05, 2013 1:30 PM Educational Feedback Loop

By Ed Kilgore

Yesterday Kevin Drum had a fascinating post about the potential for computer software offering quick feedback to students taking writing tests, and essentially offering continuous learning and assessment instead of occasional high-stakes one-shot tests:

Anyone who teaches writing will tell you about the value of having students write often and with quick feedback. Every day if possible. The problem is that, practically speaking, it’s not usually possible. So if an automated system can handle short student essays and provide decent—not great, but decent—feedback immediately, that has huge potential. This software may not be 100 percent ready for prime time yet, but it’s getting there. And it could be a game changer.

Anyone (say, parents, teachers or taxpayers) interested in this topic should go back and read (or re-read) Bill Tucker’s article in the May/June 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly (“Grand Test Auto”) about the vast potential of interactive software that can be used simultaneously for instruction and assessment—not just with respect to writing skills, but many other areas. Here’s a sample from Tucker’s piece:

In this vision, students would spend their time in the classroom solving problems, mastering complex projects, or even conducting experiments, as many of them do now. But they ’d do much of it through a technological interface: via interactive lessons and simulations, digital instruments, and, above all, games. Information about an individual student’s approach, persistence, and problem-solving strategies, in addition to their record of right and wrong answers, would be collected over time, generating much more detailed and valid evidence about a student’s skills and knowledge than a one-shot test. And all the while, these sophisticated systems would adapt, constantly updating to keep the student challenged, supported, and engaged.

Sounds good to me. I might even go back to school.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Joseph Fedorko on April 05, 2013 1:43 PM:

    Oh, good - at a time when teachers are being more marginalized than ever, class sizes are skyrocketing while compensation gets lower, and the promise of online and computerized teaching proves to be an ever-spiraling sham, along comes an allegedly liberal blog to tout a plan that will simply make all of the above worse.


  • Josef K on April 05, 2013 1:44 PM:

    Its certain a worthwhile vision. Lately I've come to think a pre-requisite for any elected official is their scoring a certain level in SimCity (tm). Of course I also think there should be a legal cap in a candidate's income level prior to their election, but then I'm just a bleeding-heart liberal who believes in nonsense like egalitarianism, compassion, and merit-based promotion.

  • jjm on April 05, 2013 1:44 PM:

    In the NYT article on this, they wrote that this would "free professors to do other things." Such as? What's more important than teaching?

    Don't say, "research," because at least in the humanities and social sciences, preparing courses for your students, getting their questions and answers, contributes to your own understanding of which concepts are of real importance to them, to the world.

    This will vitiate teaching, ultimately, Why? because teaching means you, as a professor, get to KNOW your students, their capacities, their strengths and deficiencies.

    I guess these computers will be able to write letters of recommendation, too, with stats like how many times the student had to retake the exam to reach a good score.

    And this is just peachy for outsourcing.

  • Mike on April 05, 2013 2:16 PM:

    I am a mathematics professor at a liberal arts university. We use a computer based system for teaching precalculus mathematics. The students have access to an online text, do all of their computational drill online - and no partial credit - until they have mastered a topic. They can attend optional lectures or go in to see a flesh-and-blood tutor during the day and early evening. The tests are proctored (with ID checks) and given in our computer labs.

    The students seem to be doing a bit better in their calculus classes since we instituted this system, but we are still collecting data. What this frees me up to do is to teach higher order concepts in my calculus classes rather than feel obligated to devote class time to review/introduce elementary algebra and trig.

    I periodically poll students in my calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations courses to get their thoughts on whether or not those courses should be taught similarly and the answer is a resounding NO. They recognize that computers have a role to play in routine computations, but they also acknowledge the role of the instructor to help them understand higher order concepts and apply them to real-world problems. And that, I think, is how it should be.

  • Anonymous on April 05, 2013 5:03 PM:

    This is perhaps a good idea in theory, but has anyone actually been in a public school lately? THE TECHNOLOGY NEVER WORKS. It's always outdated, poorly maintained, and difficult for teachers and students to use. This won't work effectively.