The Best Time to Learn and the Dilemma of the Education System

It’s ironic how I am taking a course titled Theories of Learning because I want to be a good educator, yet I am currently in the middle of a run as a delinquent student (learner). This post is actually a couple of months overdue as I have not been diligent enough to follow through on requirements. Yet, oddly, this circumstance has given me a different perspective as an educator. You see, I have never been a delinquent student before. There were times in the past when studies were difficult or when I would be lazy or complain about how demanding my courses were, but I was never this delinquent. I have always tried to meet deadlines and submit requirements on time as best as I could. Honestly, I used to wonder why some students wouldn’t fight until the end and yet somehow, I am one of those students now.

The past months have been difficult logistically, mentally, and emotionally on a completely different level that my courses had to take a backseat…completely. I have not been able to meet one requirement except for the introductions. I’m not proud of it but I can say I’m learning from the experience.

There are a few things that keep prodding in my mind and some realizations that have slowly developed into questions.

Learning rarely happens (if at all) with an unready heart and an unwilling mind. Motivation to learn a set of information is directly proportional to one’s ability to process those information meaningfully. “Why do I have to do this?” When the “why” is gone or is clouded by some other things, learning ends up becoming a burden rather than a necessity. When, then, is the best time to learn?

I realized that formal education rarely touches on a learner’s readiness to learn at the level they are enrolled at. This is one of the weaknesses of the education system. The system treats the population as a batch of raw materials, categorized by age, needed to be processed into final products prior to being released to the society. I realized that I (and probably most, if not all, people) learn best “on demand,” i.e. when I see the relevance of an information or a skill to my situation/goal. That would imply that the best time for me to learn is determined by my individual interests and goals at a specific time. On the other hand, should school systems treat the populace individually (considering interests and readiness), that would pose a significant logistic problem for teachers and administrators. How, then, do we best teach?




Moving On and Moving Forward

My first term for the Professional Teaching Certification Programme (PTC) of the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU) was a blast. I previously used this blog to process what I’m learning in EDS 113: Principles and Methods of Assessments. I can’t say this blog reached a significant audience; when I look at the analytics, I am happy to announce my site to reach a whopping reader rating of 1-10. Yup, literally 1-10 people read my posts last time. Haha. No worries though. I can’t say the posts were life changing enough to go to the ends of the earth. Hoping to do better in the future.

I am on now on my second term and enrolled in EDS 111: Principles of Learning and EDS 103: Theories of Learning. How awesome are my subjects this term? 대박! As much as I loved last term, I’m giddy about this one. 사랑헤요!!

Here goes my first entry!

As I have said previously, I am now on my second term as a distance learner at the University of the Philippines Open University. I’m enrolled in the Professional Teaching Certification Program, an 18-unit, non-degree certification course for (aspiring) educators (such as myself). It’s an interesting experience being enrolled in this program. I have met (if you can qualify brief conversations on the internet as meeting) many people of different ages, places, and backgrounds. A quick survey of my “classmates” has allowed me to take a peek into a world different from my own yet at the same time make me realize the enriching dialogues (even if brief) I can enjoy with people I would probably never get the chance to meet if not for this course. I encounter people who have perspectives same as mine and it encourages me to meet someone who share the same view. It tells meh at least I am not alone. There are those who have perspectives opposite as mine, and they challenge me to revisit what I’m holding onto. After all, as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. And there are perspectives which are completely alien to me, those I would probably never get to concoct on my own and beyond my thinking. They make me want to explore and keep an open mind. They tell me I don’t know everything and that the more I learn, the more I learn that I don’t know much. I probably won’t be a “noisy” participant in the discussions and fora. Even in physical classrooms, I rarely speak. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I am not an active learner. Maybe I’m like this because I learn mostly from observation and from “listening” to others (in this case, reading their posts and comments). Although I know, of  course, that I cannot use that as an excuse for not participating. I am trying. I really am. 😃

Learning from a lot of people definitely is fun but it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. It’s more a like a prince going through jungles, thorns, and dragons to claim the heart of a princess —it’s not easy. It’s a challenge and an adventure but a beautiful one at that. As much as university studies required me to develop independent learning skills such as resourcefulness, study habits, and self (time) management, distance learning, in my opinion, brings that challenge to the next level. Why? Because my teacher and classmates don’t see me. 😃

One of the greatest (and life altering) realization I have from this experience so far is this: You only get as much as you’re willing to invest. While this is still true with other learning set ups, distance learning tests integrity more than others. I can choose to wing it and get a passing grade (or maybe even a high grade) but not really learn much. Honestly, there are times I’m tempted to do that but I realized it’s ironic if I did.

You only get as much as you’re willing to invest.
 Firstly, the reason I’m enrolled in this course not because I have to. But because I wanted to. I wanted to learn as much as I can to be the best educator I can be. If I simply winged it, I just wasted time and effort, and am only fooling myself. Secondly, I’m studying about studying so to exert less effort than I can and should is quite embarrassing to admit. Enough said. Therefore, for this term, I pledge to give it my best: To give it my best to comprehend and analyze every lesson, to allow it to shape and grow my perspective and practice as an educator, and to contribute as much as I can towards building a meaningful learning environment. I pledge to undertake this course with full integrity, knowing full well that I am investing not only in myself but in the lives of the learners I will be teaching one day.

Skills Test

I can’t say I’m where I’m supposed to be in terms of learning skills and mindsets but I hope to get better at them one step at a time. My EDS 111 professor had us take three tests to gauge some skills crucial to succeed studying, and I’m sharing the results with you here. Here are the tests I took:

  1. Study Skills Inventory which is designed to  measure study skills, such as printed text reading, note taking, memory, test preparation, concentration, and time management. Here were my results

    Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 8.59.03 PM

    Bragging aside, you can say that my results were pretty good. I can honestly say I do study well. There are some skills my parents and teachers have instilled in me while I was growing up and though I used to dread study time and all that, I am thankful now that I’m reaping the fruits of their constant reminder (not nagging) and dedication. However, that doesn’t mean to say I’ve got it altogether. Studying is one thing, applying what I learn in practice is another.

  2. Self Regulation Questionnaire which is a self-assessment on one’s ability to direct and regulate one’s behavior.
  3. Time Management Skills Test which is a self-assessment on one’s time management ability.

    I found that my results for the latter two exams ranged from moderate to excellent, i.e. High/intact to intermediate/moderate self-regulation and excellent to good time manager. While answering, I realized that my answers depended highly on how clear my goal is and how motivated I am to achieve the goal. When I have no clear goal, I can put off studying and be a poor time manager. What I lack is consistency. To be consistent, I need to be reminded of my goals on a constant basis. It’s like keeping the vision fresh every time. I’m reminded of a phrase, “Vision leaks.” As vision is the fuel to my motivation, I need to make sure I recharge regularly. Also, I need to keep track of my progress, celebrate milestones, and re-assess my plans. These are things I’m aware of but not necessarily practicing. I think it was helpful that I took this time to reflect. They say, knowing is half the battle. The other half is doing something about it.


A Tale of Personal Healing

They say passion comes either from a frustration of how things currently are or from a compelling vision of how things could be. My passion for education comes from both, having great and awful experiences with the education system.

As a child, I’ve always loved learning, particularly the process of discovering new things and trying to master them (at least to some functional extent). However, by the time I graduated college, I vowed never to ever go to school again. I was tired of schooling and disillusioned by the system. I don’t know when it started that school became a place to prove one’s worth rather than a place for learning but if I had to identify the main reason for my aversion — it was exams and grades, and how they have the power to define one’s worth. Do well in school and receive love; do poorly and endure indifference. I spent half of my life trying to measure up to everyone’e expectation. For most of my schooling, I was “on top.” Needless to say, I received the respect and praises of people to a point that (bragging aside) my name was equated with excellent grades. Until I couldn’t measure up anymore. I encountered a crucial turning point in my life when I was in college. Several unwise decisions led to one particular trying semester in my life. In my desire to achieve more, I was trying to balance too many things all at once while going through some personal trials a usual teenager goes through. I met my first major failure — from being on top to being average. For the first time in my life, I met disappointed looks left and right and most the praises turned to indifference. Just like that, in what feels like a blink of an eye, I felt my worth went crashing down. I just laugh at it now when I realise how silly I was to equate my self worth with grades; but I also understand the pressures of a society that equates grades with a person’s future. To cut the long story short, I went through years of what I consider a rehabilitation period to love learning again. Several years later, my love for learning would return, but I was still wary of examinations. Even when I became a professional teacher, I saw exams and grades only as a necessary evil.

I enrolled in Professional Teaching Certificate because I wanted to make a positive impact in the education system of the Philippines particularly in the area of curriculum development and in teaching techniques. Honestly though, when I saw the list of courses, I was the least excited with “EDS 113: Principles and Methods of Assessments.” All I expected at the beginning of the course was to be able to make more sensible exams, unlike the ones I grew up taking. I was expecting to get some training on principles behind different exam types (such as how to scientifically choose the alternate answer in a multiple choice type of exam) and some mathematical technique on objectively giving grades. Little did I know that this course would pave the way to completely heal me of my aversion to examinations and grades. The biggest thing that this course gave me was a healthy shift in perspective of assessments — towards seeing them as indispensable to good quality teaching.

To this, I would like to sincerely thank my professor and my classmates!

A Compilation of Thoughts on Assessments

When you hold in your hands a tool with great power, you have to be careful. A gun in the hands of a skilled and upright policeman can be used to keep peace and order, but in the hands of someone else unaware of its power and untrained to handle it, the same gun could do serious damage.

Spending the past weeks learning about assessments made me realise that assessments in education are like guns; it is a tool of great power, which can either promote good education or completely destroy it. Every discussion left me with some thought and I have compiled a number of them. I share some of them with you today:

  1. Before you begin, make sure you’re clear on what you want to achieve.
    Know why and what before you proceed with how. A clear purpose and a defined aim makes a learning activity meaningful. Without them, we are simply beating the air. Learning objectives bridge the purpose and aims of our education to the activities of the courses we teach.
  2. Ask yourself, how you can monitor your progress and say when you have arrived.
    And then make a plan from Day 1. Assessment is hard work; to make sure it’s effective is even harder work. The usual complaint of teachers is that assessment takes too much time that it potentially interferes with instruction. However, based on prevalent practices, the reason why assessments become time consuming are largely because they are not well thought out. Rather, they become a reactive response to a “need to test” student learning for reporting purposes. Including assessments in the overall plan of teaching crucial at the start of planning the course may mitigate this, giving more time to schedule and develop well thought out assessments.
  3. Educate yourself on assessments  in education.
    No planning will happen unless you are convinced of the value of assessments for effective teaching and learning. Every teacher is motivated by the thought of students learning. Rarely does teaching pay well monetarily; but it pays well knowing that you are shaping the future generation. So the first thing you have to get educated on is how crucial assessments is in shaping the future generation well.

    Once you are convinced that you cannot teach effectively without assessing effectively, the question is how. This is when you educate yourself with the tools of the trade. How can I use assessment to facilitate learning? Assessments can be used for different purposes (formative, summative) using different types (formal, informal; traditional, non traditional). Just like how a master carpenter understands every tool inches tool box, as educators, we must also understand every tool in ours.

  4. Use assessments for different purposes, and mostly to facilitate learning.
    To assess progress or to measure proficiency? There are certain principles that come along a purpose. Obviously, if you want to use assessments so that students can improve their work, then you cannot only assess after the semester is over. You also have to make sure that the feedback is given promptly to give enough time for the student to incorporate it to improve performance.
  5. Use the assessment type best suited to your purpose.
    We are so used to the multiple choice and the true or false type of exams that it becomes a default, especially when pressed for time. While these traditional types of assessments maintain some level of usefulness, especially owing to their efficiency for grading, they also need time to be designed well.  At the same time, they are rarely sufficient for use as assessments in all cases. Depending on the purpose and the field, looking for other non traditional assessments may be necessary. It may be more difficult to test, and designing a clear rubric is no joke, but using non traditional types of assessments may make all the difference in encouraging meaningful  real student learning.
  6. Make sure you design valid and reliable assessments.
    Using invalid assessments is not only a waste of time but also dangerous. Students’ perspectives of learning and education are largely shaped by their collective experience in education, and their experiences on assessments continue to that. Be especially careful of high stakes assessments. The moment you attach an important decision to anything, that anything gets the spotlight.

Reinforcing Meaningful Learning

“I love studying.” Whenever I say that to most of people, I am greeted with a mixture of shock, disbelief, and a hint of disgust. It seems that statement is interpreted to mean “I’m a nerd,” “I have no social life,” and/or “I am weird.” Rarely do I find someone who would celebrate with me the joy of learning.

It doesn’t bother me though. For I was once in their shoes. Years back, I wasn’t fond of studying. Although I did have good grades, I viewed studying as merely a means to prepare for the exam. And examination wasn’t a pleasant experience too. It was merely a means to attain something more significant — a bright future. This was what I was conditioned to believe: “If I wanted a bright future, I needed a good job. To get a good job, I had to have good grades. To have good grades, I had to do well in the exams. To do well in the exams, I had to study.” On their own, I found no merit in the intermediate steps — grades, examinations, and studying were merely tools necessary  to secure a bright future.

This reflected on my approach to studying. Since I was studying for the grades, my approach changed depending on what would give me a good mark, short of cheating of course. If rote memorisation would give me good grades, I memorised to the letter. If a teacher’s bent was on giving problems that were similar to what was given in class, I wouldn’t even dare look for other examples in other resources. If a teacher had a certain pattern for his exams, I would study old exams if they were available. Getting used to this pattern has blurred the purpose of schooling. Somewhere along the way, school became about the something else other than learning.

I believe this happens when elements in the education system do not align to achieve one destination. Every element in education contribute to answering the question: “What matters in education?” A misaligned education system confuses. I think everybody agrees that ideally, education systems are meant for students to learn; curriculum, instruction, and assessments are meant to facilitate the learning. The system is supposed to educate, after all.

In simple terms: Curriculum tells us what students need to learn, instruction interprets and delivers the curriculum, and assessments inform us how well the curriculum is delivered. Curriculum defines what is meaningful and worthwhile learning. Instruction and assessment work to either reinforce or weaken how well the curriculum materializes. Geared toward the same focus, there is good chance that an education system will produce individuals as intended. However, once there is a difference in focus, we are forced to make a choice where to fix our eyes on. The destination which pulls stronger gets the attention.

In my experience, there was a conflicting tug where to direct my studying on: grades or mastery of the subject. Most of my earlier experience pulled me to believe that good grades always means meaningful learning, and meaningful learning always translates to good grades. Looking back, I regretfully realize it wasn’t so. Taking this course on assessments has definitely instilled in me a desire to be critical and wary of assessment practices to make sure that there is increased trust in the education system.

Assessments need to be valid and authentic to reinforce real learning of curriculum. In short, they have to contain the content covered and reflect the response targeted in the objective and instruction. However, there is lamentably a lot of educators who are ill-equipped with the skills required in the construction of valid assessments. Getting good grades on assessments that are invalid is a questionable reason to celebrate. Invalid assessments make invalid grades. But when the target of studying is merely high grades, then learning is set aside for as long as the numbers say we’re doing well. Unhealthy perspectives such as this encourage unhealthy practices. One example is that some teachers who are penalized when students have low grades may resort to invalid ways of improving student grades such as giving items or activities for bonus points even if they have nothing to do at all with the targeted competencies. The assessment cycle works, but it’s working to take us farther and farther away from real learning.

Some critics aver that it is not only the content that is important to make good assessments; the form also matters. Good grades, especially derived from the types of assessments prevalent in most schools, are rarely a sufficient measure of real learning. Traditional assessments usually use proxy items as representative of desired learning competencies for easier and more efficient testing. Can one ace an exam even without being able to perform the skills and competencies called for by authentic learning? Sadly, the answer is yes. Meaningful learning may take a backseat especially when there is a much easier method of achieving high grades. This is why there is a movement today of educators advocating for authentic assessments.

Lastly, it is important that assessments are used to reinforce what real learning is. When only summative assessments are used, we communicate that learning is just a means to prove ourselves. Even if valid and authentic, using assessments solely for the purpose of judging the worth of students’ proficiency will only encourage individuals to see education as a means to prove themselves. Leveraging assessments for formative purposes will increase the enjoyment of the process of learning, and potentially even improve the results of summative assessments.

There surely is a lot of work that can still be done to continuously align education systems towards emphasising and reinforcing the value of meaningful learning. As educators, we need to recalibrate our eyes to make sure that we are focused on honing meaningful learning. We need to be aware that other targets will try to lure our focus but we must stand our ground to keep charging towards: as curriculum developers, to develop curricula that is reflective of meaningful learning; and as teachers, to instruct and assess in a manner that reinforces meaningful learning. So that studying becomes synonymous with learning. So that more people can relate when someone utters “I love studying.”

Had I Known Better…

I love teaching. I think it is a noble task that includes me as a beneficiary as well. I love it because of the opportunity to shape the minds of the next generation; and while I shape theirs, mine is being transformed as well.

I love teaching, but I hated testing. I dreaded those days when I had to formulate exams to evaluate my students’ grasp of the coverage of the previous lectures. I even dreaded it more when I had to check, record, and report the results. Of course I understood that there must be some form of measure to gauge and differentiate (i.e. rank) students but my perspective of tests and grades were just that: a necessary evil. This may have been a consequence of my hostility towards exams when I was still in school. I never understood how those exams were a reliable measure of my skills and abilities. That’s why when I became a teacher, I didn’t see their value.

All I wanted was to inspire people to learn, to challenge them to think deeper, and to let their unique abilities shine. I thought I’d be better off doing away with exams. I would be a cooler teacher, and perhaps more effective. I didn’t think I could be more wrong.

If teaching was a trip, it’s intended to be gone through with someone. The goal is to get to the destination together. The beauty of the destination doesn’t matter if you’re the only one to enjoy it. Without looking back if someone’s still following you, you may not realize your companion has fallen behind. That’s teaching without assessing. Perhaps the biggest mistake I made was to think that assessments were only used as measures of learning rather than as tools for learning. It’s not only crucial to check on your traveling companion at the end of the journey but periodically. In fact, majority of the checks need to be spread out in the middle of the journey. In the same way, majority of assessments in learning has to be used ‘for learning’ more than ‘of learning.’

Types of Assessments

Assessments may be categorised in different types according to design and according to purpose. There two major types of assessments according to design are formal and informal.

Formal assessments are designed to gauge a student’s proficiency level based on statistically derived prescriptions of interpreting the results of the assessments. These assessments “assume a single set of expectations for all students” (Navarete, 1990) regardless of other conditions such as ethnicity, language conventions, etc. Formal assessments are usually used to determine overall achievement based on specified curriculum content, or ability, strength and weaknesses compared with peers. 

Informal assessments are used to determine a student’s learning progress based on content/performance rather than on data and statistics. Informal assessments are more flexible than formal assessments such that they may be designed according to students’ learning context. Thus, some assessments applicable (more valid and reliable) to one particular student (or group of students) may not be applicable to another. 

There are two types of assessments according to purpose: summative and formative. Summative assessments differ from formative assessments not so much in the form but in the purpose for which the data gathered from the assessment is used.

Assessments used for summative purposes are high stakes or have high point value — results reflect to grade points that summarizes a student’s learning achievement compared with a certain standard. These assessments may also be referred to as “assessments of learning,” given at the end of a unit, and usually evaluates a student’s mastery of that unit’s scope. Results usually inform decisions for promotion, awarding of diploma/certificate, and ranking.

When data from assessment is used to gather evidence of students’ learning progress and then to inform instruction, i.e. how to adjust instruction for teachers and how to improve learning for students, assessment is formative. These assessments are generally low stakes, which means they have little or no point value (little or no effect on numerical grade). Formative assessments may be administered within instruction as an ongoing feedback for both students and instructors to improve learning. Hence, it is also known as “assessment for learning.” 

My experience both as as a student and teacher involved mostly summative assessments and mostly formal. Both assessment types are best used to gauge overall learning and proficiency in subject matters. However, formative and informal assessments are best used to inform instruction — helping teachers adjust their teaching and students to understand (and adjust) their learning. Had I known better, there are a few things I would have done differently:

As a student, I would have proactively sought feedback. As a teacher, I would have given it out more intentionally. 

As one mentor has told me before, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. No improvement will come if all you do is practice. You need to receive evaluative feedback and incorporate it to your practice to get you one step closer to perfect.”

As a teacher, I would have incorporated in my teaching process and activities more formative and informal assessments.

This would have given my students more opportunities to engage in their learning without fear of being judged for the mistakes they’ll commit. This would have certainly made students more at ease inside the classroom and more susceptible to learning.

I may have made mistakes in the past. However, all is not lost. After all, I am still a student and I am still a teacher. Hopefully, all this learning doesn’t end in paper, with theories and principles. Rather that it transforms. 🙂


Purposeful Assessment

Purposeful assessment. It sounds basic, doesn’t it? Isn’t it just proper to be purposeful when teaching and purposeful when assessing learning? However, when I reflect on my experience in schooling, it’s regretful to acknowledge that a lot of it seems to be amiss.

For most of my time as a student, I’ve viewed tests, recitations, or any form of evaluation as a means for teachers to rank  students. The minimum goal: to pass; the ultimate goal: to land on top. To pass means that I’m at least meeting what a person in my age is supposed to be learning; to fail means I’m a disappointment. To top means I’m ahead of my batch, smarter, and will be successful in the future. I realised later on how terribly wrong my understanding were.

Not all of my experience in schooling was bad though. I’ve met passionate educators who have been a source of inspiration for me to learn more. In hindsight, I remember them not only administering well thought out exams, but also providing avenues in the classroom where students can convey thoughts without fear of being wrong when we were wrong, and using questioning techniques to challenge our thinking. I think they must have understood the importance of using assessment in different ways, especially to aide student learning.

Reflecting on these and learning about the different purpose of assessments, I realise the weight of my responsibility as an educator. How I teach could shape a someone’s view of education — either as a wearisome journey of exams one has to pass to prove himself or an inspiring process of acquiring new knowledge, building valuable skills, and discovering hidden talents.

William Spady said, “All students can learn and succeed but not in the same day and not in the same way.” I’m hoping that as an educator, purposeful teaching and assessment would help me facilitate students learning.