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Hannah's report

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Written Assignment on Practicum


Practicum assignment: A study of student learning

To be back at primary school - a somewhat familiar experience of lunch orders, lollipop-people, library bags and low ceiling corridors lined with backpacks. Yet such a familiar world seemed somewhat novel and daunting, for my perspective was no longer that of a student, rather that of a student teacher.

For the next five days my role was to observe and analyse learning in the classroom. Learning can be seen as acquiring knowledge, linked to past experiences and teaching. Its quality can vary greatly, often in the classroom what is being taught is quite different to what is being learnt by students. Memory is an integral part of learning, however, recalling material learnt by rote is a demonstration of a poor learning tendency. Rather, memory acts to enhance our learning, as a means to cluster and organise concepts, and create meaning about what is being taught. In the classroom, the process of learning is undertaken in various forms, where the approaches taken by students to learning are specific to both the individual and the context. . Students are known to respond to different forms of presentation, such as visual and aural in various ways. In turn, such responses can take the form of a deep or surface processing of information. In the former, students can actively elaborate, and gain a rich understanding of information or in the latter act passively, and focus on the literal aspects of a task.

In particular, a student's own level of interest and motivation in the classroom correlates strongly with the quality of learning being undertaken. For teachers it is difficult to find the right approach to maintain high levels of interest and motivation within an environment of mixed skills and abilities. Different goals, levels of self confidence, and perceptions of success can all act to hinder or support learning. In particular, a perception of success can be seen by students as being influenced by external uncontrollable matters, such as teachers or 'luck', or internal controllable forces, such as a students' own ability and skill. Referred to as an individual's locus of control, the placement of this influence as either internal or external relates strongly to an individual's own level of interest and motivation toward a task. Psychologist Julian Rotter (1966) was to see individuals who perceive outcomes as a result of their own, internal forces undertake tasks with a higher level of perseverance and motivation than those who see their outcomes as a result of external influences. For my analysis of leaning I have chosen to focus on interest and motivation, describing and explaining the apparent levels of interest within students, and exploring the display of internal or external locus of control in the way it relates to a student's interest and perseverance with a task.

Completed at Clayton Primary School, my five days were spent working with a composite Grade 4/5 class. With approximately 120 students within the school body and 25 within the class, the school itself is rather small, allowing for the development of a cohesive, close-knit school community. The students were representative of a broad range of nationalities, from Mongolian to Brazilian, and on the whole, were quite enthusiastic toward their learning. In particular, I observed an immense enjoyment for Maths within the class. Discussions with students at the end of the day revealed Maths to be the popular choice as the "best" thing they had done for the day. Many students stated, "I love Maths", a comment that surprised me, as Maths is often seen as a subject of great torture and dislike for students. Continuously, I heard the class erupt with a unanimous "yeshhhhhhhhhhh!" as Mr. Zhueng announced it was time for Maths. From these observations I decided to look at Maths, exploring the various ways it was taught by Mr. Zhueng, and to see if there was any relationship between his teaching and the quality of students' learning.

Maths was taught in two broad categories within the class, mental Maths and signpost Maths. In the instance of mental Maths I observed a very high level of interest and motivation, where students appeared enthused and willing to participate. Mental Maths involved developing the students' cognitive skills and processes. Without the use of calculators or the opportunity to do any working out on paper, students were quizzed in two main areas, the game of 'Twenty-four' and 'Times-table Champs'. 'Twenty-four' involved working with four randomly selected numbers, and through the processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division students were required to arrive at the number twenty-four. Whereas 'Times-tables Champs' involved aurally responding to multiplication sums randomly chosen by the teacher. The class was divided into four groups, two points were awarded for a correct and minus one point for an incorrect response.

Whilst these activities serve as a means of developing cognitive skills and of revision, I saw the children focus on the nature of the task as a game, with one student commenting, "It's fun..., we're not working from our books". The competitive element, in the form of scoring, served as a means of motivation for the students to be interested and involved in the task. The students didn't perceive the games as requirements, or necessities that have to be done like an assignment or project. Their informal nature, which allowed for the activities to be undertaken as both time-fillers and class sessions, disguised the perception of the tasks as a means to revise and develop skills.

Yet I was to express a concern to Mr. Zhueng that perhaps many of the children placed too great an importance on winning the game rather than on answering the questions correctly. This concern stemmed from my observation of a few students jumping and proclaiming that they knew the answer either before the question was fully stated, or they were unable to draw an instant response (ie, they had to figure it out) when asked to provide an answer. Although Mr. Zhueng was to say that at times the classroom can get quite rowdy, the children do understand that as part of the game they are required to provide correct answers to the questions. Whether or not the children saw answering the questions as a means for revision or a way to win the game wasn't significant.

Importantly, the children saw themselves with the ability to succeed and complete the activity as the winning team. As a consequence, the students saw their locus of control as internal; their skills and abilities are sufficient to bring success. Rather than rely on luck, or any other external loci of control, the students saw their own abilities as the means to bring about a successful end. A fear of failure was non-existent, as working within a team accommodated for different levels of competence regarding Maths. Because of this, the students were intrinsically motivated, having learnt their input would bring success. Subsequently, they were willing to participate and were engaged in the activity.

However, I observed instances in the second category of Maths, signpost Maths, where students showed external loci of control. Different to mental Maths, signpost Maths involved teaching the students skills, such as long division, and theoretical knowledge, such as area. Students worked individually, off the board or from hand-out sheets, which were later corrected together as a whole class. In this instance, I saw many of the students approach their work with less enthusiasm, and many were reliant on me to 'help' them by providing the answers.

I heard comments from many of the students the following comments, "I can't do it, it's too hard", or quite bluntly, "I hate fractions". One student, Ruth, in particular demonstrated a very low level of interest and motivation. Ruth was often turning to me for help, and showed reluctance for me to leave her to work on her own. Most times, she simply asked for answers to the problems, rather than how to do them. Her goals were quantitative rather than qualitative, and her perception of the task was not that of a challenge; but more of a hurdle - it was something that simply had to be done.

I could see that Ruth's mental set about her inability to complete the task prevented her from finding the motivation to attempt the questions. She was unable to see herself complete the questions correctly and as a result, Ruth believed that external sources -loci of control - affected her ability to successfully complete the activity. An example of this was her dependence on me to help her complete the work. In one instance, Ruth was finding it particularly difficult when working with percentages. Mr. Zhueng had shown the class an algorithm, to find the percentage of a particular number. Having gone through and explained the steps myself to Ruth, she replied that she now knew how to do it. However, she was unable to demonstrate this to me, rather she resorted to random guessing, with some answers illustrating she hadn't grasped the basic elements of percentages. Yet we worked through some more problems together, and slowly I was to see Ruth follow the process to arrive at a correct answer.

In later discussions with Mr. Zhueng he commented on the difficulties in teaching a class with a range of academic levels. Whilst one-on-one tuition is the preferred option, it is often the least practical in a class of almost thirty students. In effect you can create a situation wherein compensating for the less academic students, those students who are able to grasp concepts quickly are left uninterested and bored. He was pleased with Ruth's progress, yet he inferred that her newly found skill would be forgotten by tomorrow's class. Unfortunately this was the case, and Ruth once again looked to me for help. Interestingly, I could see Ruth driven by an intrinsic motivation and at times she became frustrated at not being able to complete the problems. But she relied on others to guide her, and was unable to trust in her own abilities to complete the work. As a result, I observed she had little interest in her work in my absence, her motivation being derived from my help.

Yet Mr. Zhueng didn't rely solely on the nature of his activities as a source of interest and motivation for the students. His use of a commendation board at the back of the classroom can be seen as an extrinsic motive, as too his 'promise' of playing games such as 'Brandy', 'Times-tables Champs' and Twenty-four' at the end of the day or in some spare time before a recess. Through the commendation board, the students were able to show their achievements to parents in a tangible manner. At the end of each week, Mr. Zhueng and the class engaged in an open discussion to nominate candidates for categories such as best trier, neatest handwriting, best presentation and most courteous. Importantly, these categories are seen as attainable by the students and they hold a worthy value, appropriate for this age group. This is also true of 'Times-table Champs', 'Twenty-four' and 'Brandy', as rewards that are appropriate and the children enjoy. However, their use depicts the activities as a positive consequence and result to completing class work and other less appealing activities, rather than something the students wish to achieve.

In looking at the above observation and analysis, it can be seen that interest and motivation play a vital role in enhancing the quality of student learning. In particular, students' own beliefs about their abilities and skills are important as these can be seen as a source of motivation for students to begin and complete tasks. The creation of a positive, and successful view of students' own skills can be seen as a task that lies with both the student and teacher. For the teacher, it is important to encourage students to participate in tasks and to work toward eliminating a fear of failure. Activities need to be engaging, interesting and hold a value and purpose relevant to the students' developmental level, something that is often hard to ensure with the range of students to be found in any class. While for students, mistakes need to be viewed as a means of learning rather than an indication of failure. Yet most importantly, it needs to be remembered that the creation of students' own positive perceptions of learning is a gradual process that can't be forced upon students.

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