Computer-Aided Personalized System of Instruction

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Teaching and Researching Higher-Order Thinking in a Virtual Environment
Joseph J. Pear
University of Manitoba


An innovation in studying the teaching and learning process has been developed at the University of Manitoba. Computer-Aided Personalized System of Instruction (CAPSI) targets questions or problems within small units of study material to initiate composed rather than option-based responses. This system integrates peer review with evaluation by instructor and teaching assistants. Current research focuses on increasing thinking levels by students in courses using CAPSI.

Introduction The Keller (1968) personalized system of instruction (PSI) is a method of self-paced learning in which students proceed through course material at their own pace by writing unit assignments on study questions or problems given to the students beforehand. Other students act as reviewers or tutors by giving feedback on the unit assignments. PSI is a mastery system since students demonstrate mastery on a given unit before they can proceed to the next unit. Research has shown that mastery learning in general and the Keller system in particular produce superior learning (Kulik, Kukik and Bangert-Drowns, 1990).

Bloom's (1956) taxonomy in the cognitive domain is a system for categorizing the thinking levels required by specific questions, problems, or exercises. Bloom identified six major categories of thinking: (1) knowledge, (2) comprehension, (3) application, (4) analysis, (5) synthesis, and (6) evaluation. These categories are roughly hierarchical. For example, to be able to creatively put together several basic concepts to create a new idea (level 5), one must have a good understanding or comprehension (level 2) of those basic concepts. Although Bloom’s taxonomy is not the only possible way to classify thinking levels, it is widely known and used in education, and therefore provides a good starting point for teaching higher-order thinking and studying its development. This paper describes a method for teaching and studying the teaching and learning process, called computer-aided personalized system of instruction (CAPSI; Pear & Crone-Todd, 1999), that combines Keller's PSI and Bloom's taxonomy. Combining the Keller system with Bloom’s taxonomy presented some problems that required a technological solution. First, the Keller system requires a great deal of routine administrative work to maintain. Second, adding the thinking-level dimension increases the administrative work required. By automating repetitive tasks, computer technology increases the efficiency of the process. Perhaps even more importantly, computer technology makes it possible to study the process in a comprehensive systematic manner.

The Method

As originally developed by Keller, PSI uses students in a more advanced course as reviewers of assignments by students in less advanced courses. This made sense administratively, because the more advanced course provided a source of individuals who had presumably mastered the material in the less advanced course. With computer technology, however, a more advanced course is unnecessary. Each student's position in the course is available instantaneously. This enables the CAPSI program to use students in the same course as peer reviewers. An added benefit of using computer technology is that students do not have to be at one specific location at one specific time. CAPSI-taught courses at the University of Manitoba are conducted through the Internet.  An important feature of CAPSI is its quality control potential. In courses at the University of Manitoba, the program requires that a unit assignment be marked by the instructor or teaching assistant or by two peer reviewers. If two peer reviewers mark it, both must independently agree that the assignment is a pass in order for the program to record it as a pass. In addition, all assignments are automatically recorded to disc for the instructor to sample and evaluate. There is also a built-in appeal process for arguing the validity of a given answer.  The program is applicable to any course topic and any set of questions or problems. The instructor inputs questions or problems and certain parameters, such as the number of units in the course, the course credit for each unit assignment, the course credit for peer reviewing, and whether there are to be examinations or projects in the course and their respective course credits. The program then automates all the administrative functions of the course. Thus, the study material (e.g., text, videos, lectures) along with the questions, exercises, or problems selected or generated by the instructor form the basis or core of the system. The type of learning that students can acquire from the course will be highly dependent on this core. If the instructor writes questions that require only rote learning (level 1, or knowledge, in Bloom's taxonomy), for example, students will be unlikely to advance above the rote level. For this reason CAPSI is designed for constructed or composed solutions or answers rather than option-based (e.g., true-false, multiple choice) responses. However, a method for ensuring that students would learn and interact with the material at the highest possible level of thinking was still needed. Hence, a modified form of Bloom's taxonomy was integrated into the system.  There were several reasons for modifying the taxonomy. One is that there are reliability problems with the taxonomy (e.g, Kotte & Schuster, 1990). Another is the complexity of the taxonomy, which makes it difficult to apply. Of course, one would expect a classification of thinking levels to be complex. However, it seemed better to simplify the taxonomy and make it more reliable for the purpose of integrating it with CAPSI. It is anticipated that refinement and elaboration of this modified taxonomy will result from research on its use within the CAPSI program.
The taxonomy as currently used with CAPSI is as follows:
  1. Rote knowledge: the answer is word-for-word or closely paraphrased from the study material.
  2. Comprehension: the answer is in the student’s own words.
  3. Application: a concept is applied to a new problem or situation. Examples would be illustrating a concept with a new example (e.g., one not in the study material) and applying an equation to a new problem.
  4. Analysis: breaking down a concept into its parts. This occurs when, for example, one compares and contrasts two or more concepts.
  5. Synthesis: integrating two or more concepts to form something new. An example would be combining several styles of painting to produce a new style.
  6. Evaluation: providing reasoned argument for or against a given position. An example would be an argument considering the pros and cons of cloning research from an ethical perspective or from a scientific perspective.
Flowcharts were constructed constructed that permitted the thinking levels of both questions and answers to be assessed with good reliability (Crone-Todd, Pear, & Read, 2000; Pear, Crone-Todd, Wirth, & Simister, in press). This has set the stage for research on ways to raise the level of thinking at which students respond to questions in CAPSI-taught courses.
Research Issues
The first foray into investigating increasing thinking levels in student answers consisted in providing students with the modified taxonomy, the thinking level required by each question, and a system of bonus points for each question answered above the level outlined (Crone-Todd, 2001). For example, if a question asked for an example of a concept without specifying that the example had to be original (i.e., not in the study material), this question would be considered to be at level 2. Thus, if a student gave an original example this would be answering at level 3, and therefore would be answering above the level of the question. This procedure successfully increased the levels at which students answered the questions. This shows that students are able to increase their demonstrated thinking levels.   Using CAPSI as an instrument for probing students’ thinking levels in a course, we are in a position to study variables thought to be important in helping students advance their thinking levels. For example, we might use CAPSI to examine whether some study materials and media are more effective at promoting higher-order thinking than others are. Research issues that can be examine include: Are textbooks that are written in a manner that initiates thinking or leads the reader through the discovery process more effective in facilitating higher-order thinking than those that present a comprehensive coverage of factual material? Are lectures or discussion groups, or some mixture of the two, more effective at promoting higher-order thinking? Are live presentations more effective than videos? Are face-to-face discussions more effective than on-line discussions? These are questions that need to be answered as we advance into the technological age of education. Another important research area concerns the questions, exercises, and problems in a course. Research questions that might be studied here area include: What is the most effective proportion of each category of thinking level? For example, a large proportion of evaluation questions (level 6) might be detrimental because, given the hierarchical nature of the taxonomy, students may not be adequately prepared to successfully address questions at the highest level. What is the most effective way of sequencing the question levels for a given unit in the study guide? For example, would higher-level thinking be more effectively promoted by having students answer all rote questions (level 1) first, then all comprehension questions (level 2) next, etc., or would interspersing the levels be more effective? The information obtained by research on these issues would likely be applicable to courses taught with various other methods, not just those taught using CAPSI. The social milieu in of a CAPSI-taught course also provides a rich source of variables that may have an impact on higher-order thinking. In that milieu are the students, acting both as learners and as peer reviewers, and the instructor and (if there is one) teaching assistant who oversee the system and perform evaluative and feedback functions. Research shows that, overall, students perform their peer-reviewing duties effectively (Martin, Pear & Martin, in press a) and that there is a large amount of compliance with feedback that students as learners receive from other students as peer reviewers, and from the instructor (Martin, Pear, & Martin, in press b)). There is, however, considerable room for improvement, and research is in progress on this. Analysis of archived data shows that students in a CAPSI-taught course receive much more substantive feedback on their work than would be possible in a course taught by traditional methods. This interactive nature of CAPSI fits a social constructivist model of knowledge generation through interaction with others (Pear & Crone-Todd, in press). Much of the knowledge generation occurs on the part of the peer reviewers, who find (often to their surprise) that reading other students answers or solutions and commenting on them initiates their own learning and higher-order thinking. Another important area of study, therefore, is on the effects of the peer-review component of CAPSI in the development of higher-order thinking.

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Cognitive and affective domains. New York: David McKay.Crone-Todd, D. E. (2001). Increasing the levels at which undergraduate students answer questions in computer-aided personalized system of instruction courses. PhD thesis submitted to the University of Manitoba.Crone-Todd, D. E., Pear, J. J., & Read, C. N. (2000). Operational definitions of higher-order thinking objectives at the post-secondary level. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 4, 99-106.Keller, F. S. (1968). "Good-bye Teacher...". Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 5, 79-89. Kotte, J. L., & Schuster, D. H. (1990). Developing tests for measuring Bloom’s learning outcomes. Psychological Reports, 66, 27-32. Kulik, C.-L., Kulik, J. A., & Bangert-Drowns, R. L. (1990). Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60, 265-299. Martin, T. L., Pear, J. J., & Martin, G. L. (in press a). Analysis of proctor marking accuracy in a computer-aided personalized system of instruction course. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Martin, T. L., Pear, J. J., & Martin, G. L. (in press b). Proctor feedback and its effectiveness in a computer-aided personalized system of instruction course. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Pear, J. J., & Crone-Todd, D. E. (1999). Personalized system of instruction in cyberspace. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32, 205-209. Pear, J. J., & Crone-Todd, D. E. (in press). A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction. Computers & Education. Pear, J. J., Crone-Todd, D. E., Wirth, K., & Simister, H. (in press). Assessment of thinking level in students' answers. Academic Exchange Quarterly.

[1] Paper to be presented at the 13th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning. Jacksonville, Florida. April 9-13, 2002.

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