Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 34 / MARCH 1983 / PAGE 135

Learning With Computers

Glenn M. Kleiman

Computerized Drill And Practice

There is a very old joke which starts with the question: How does one get to Carnegie Hall from here? The answer is, of course: practice, practice, practice.

Practice is necessary to become proficient at any skill, whether it is a musical skill such as playing the piano, a physical skill such as riding a bicycle, or the more cognitive skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. In each case, beginners must concentrate their effort and attention on basic components of the skill. Beginning pianists think about the location of each note, beginning bicyclists attend to balancing, steering and pedaling, and beginning readers concentrate on recognizing each word.

After extensive practice, the individual becomes agile and can perform the basics without much effort or attention. Proficient pianists move their fingers almost automatically, and can therefore concentrate on the music, not the physical actions of playing the notes. After practice, bicyclists can balance, steer and pedal without attending to their movements. Proficient readers recognize most words quickly and effortlessly, and therefore can focus their attention on the overall meaning of the text.

Rote Drills And Practice

Despite the obvious need and value of practice, there are controversies about the drill and practice work that occupy so much of students' and teachers' time. One controversy centers on the amount of time and effort which should be devoted to drill work, as opposed to more conceptual, exploratory, or creative endeavors. Another controversy centers on the nature of the practice exercises given to students.

Many educators believe that common approaches to reading, math, and other drills are not effective and, in some cases, may even be detrimental. Often, this debate is over the virtues of dividing skills into many subskills and having students practice each one in isolation, as opposed to practicing the entire skill at once. The most common example is in the teaching of reading, where the contrast is between emphasis on practicing phonics and word recognition subskills versus emphasis on practicing reading real books, magazines, and newspapers.

The introduction of computers into schools has involved these debates about drill and practice. Drill work was the first use of computers in many schools, and it continues to be a prevalent application. There is more software for math and other drills than for any other educational application of computers. However, many educators decry such use of computers. They strongly advocate that the limited number of computers in schools be used to encourage conceptual learning, not rote drills.

I concur, to a large extent, with those who criticize the drill and practice exercises so common in many schools. However, I do not agree that computers should never be used for drill and practice. Practice is, I think, a necessary evil, one which is essential for mastering any skill. Computers, with properly designed software, can make the practicing of certain skills both more effective and more enjoyable.

Many types of practice follow a similar format. Practice items, such as math problems or typing drills, are presented to the students. The students respond to each item, answering questions or performing actions such as typing sequences of letters. At some point, the students receive feedback on their work. In many skills, speed as well as correctness is important, so the feedback covers both. Students are then expected to direct further study and practice to those items with which they had difficulty.

Effective Computer Exercises

Several factors determine the effectiveness of practice drills. First, the selection of the practice items is critical. There is no value to practicing already mastered items, and items that are too difficult will lead to frustration rather than learning. Certain characteristics of feedback are also critical.

Immediate feedback is much more valuable than delayed feedback, since it enables students to catch their errors and learn the correct response while they are still actively involved in the drill. Immediate feedback also helps keep students' attention on their work.

Also important is whether the feedback helps students understand and correct their errors. Feedback that explains why responses are incorrect leads to much more effective learning than feedback which simply tells students whether their answers are correct or incorrect.

Computers can be programmed to present practice items, monitor students' performance, adjust the items to an appropriate level for each individual, and provide immediate and, in many cases, explanatory feedback. For skills in which speed is important, computers can accurately measure the time of every response and control how quickly practice items are presented.

Learning to type provides a good example of the possible benefits of using computers. Everyone agrees that typing is a valuable skill, one that is becoming even more valuable as computers are used more widely. The only way to become a proficient typist is through repetitive practice. Computers can make practice more effective, so less time need be devoted to it. Computers can also free teachers from the drudgery of correcting typing tests.

Several companies market programs to help people learn to type. When these programs are used, the computer presents sequences of letters and words on the screen, and the student types them. The drills follow established methods of teaching typing, so they begin with the "home" keys (ASDFJKL;) and then gradually add other letters. As the student types each sequence, the computer monitors both accuracy and speed. It can make students immediately aware of their errors, so that incorrect habits do not become ingrained.

In addition, the computer can identify keys and sequences on which the student needs to gain more speed. The programs automatically adjust later drills so that practice time is directed to those letters and sequences that are most in need of further work. This continuous dynamic adjustment of the drill items can be accomplished only with computers.

Practice With Games

Computers can also make drills more enjoyable by incorporating them into games. In one such program, called MasterType (from Lightning Software, P.O. Box 11725, Palo Alto, CA 94306), typing drills are placed into the context of a space invaders game. The scenario has the player defending his planet against attackers from the planet Lexicon. The attackers are represented by letters or words in each of the four corners of the screen. The attackers fire missiles at the planet. The player must destroy the attackers by quickly and accurately typing each of the words. The excellent arcade-like features have many people so caught up in the game they forget they are actually involved in the drudgery of typing practice. The same approach is used in a series of well-designed programs from Developmental Learning Materials, Inc. (1 DLM Park, Allen, TX 75002) which incorporate math drills into arcade-like games.

Music training is another area in which computerized drills can be beneficial. Several music drill programs are available. The following examples are based on programs developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.

One drill helps train students to recognize and produce rhythms. The computer presents a sequence of notes on the screen. The student is asked to tap the rhythm by pressing the space bar on the computer keyboard. The computer immediately checks the answer. When the student makes an error, the computer plays the original rhythm and the one tapped out by the student, thereby aiding understanding. Another part of the drill plays rhythms and has the student specify the length of each note.

Another music drill helps students learn to recognize musical notes and musical notation. In this drill, the student sees written notes on the computer screen and then hears notes played. In each case, one of the notes played does not match the corresponding note in the written sequence. The student's job is to find the incorrect note. If the student makes a mistake, the computer repeats the original sequence and plays the notes as written, so that the student can hear the difference.

These are but a few examples of the potential benefits of computerized drill and practice. These benefits can, of course, also be applied to more academic skills, such as math and spelling drills. A great deal of drill and practice software is available. This software varies in how well it takes advantage of the potential value of computer-assisted practice. Careful evaluation is necessary before selecting any drill and practice program.