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CO 68.1 [Fall 1990], pp. 30-31: Drill-and-practice discussed;Latin Conjugation Master; On-line coursepacks from Univ. of FTP


In the last column I delineated three major categories of instructionalsoftware--drill and practice, tutorial, and simulation--and then proceededinto a more detailed discussion of simulation programs in particular. Ibegan with simulations largely because of the strong interest expressedby workshop participants and the urgent need for more development in thisarea. This time I would like to tackle the category which includes the vastmajority of available software, both in the Classics and in the educationalarena in general.

The easiest, and therefore the earliest, task to which computers were appliedon a broad scale in education was the correction of the old punch-card and"scantron" tests. (Note that the "#2 lead pencil syndrome"has yet to leave us since then.) When enough terminals became available,it was a possible to just cut out the paper medium and have students entertheir single letter answers on the keyboard and have the computer correctthem as they proceeded through a rigidly controlled sequence of multiple-choicequestions. Rarely would students have the opportunity to handle questionsout of sequence or take more than one attempt to answer a question correctly.This strict regimentary methodology did much to establish the fundamentalbelief that computers take complete control of any situation they are engagedin and leave little room for individual human preferences.

Fortunately, computer programming has been able to develop a much more sophisticatedlevel of "drill and practice" since then. Now, at least, thereis no excuse for a student using instructional software not to have a certainminimal level of flexibility and control available to him or her. What,then, are the characteristics of the current minimal level of software sophistication?


First, any decent drill-and-practice program should immediately informthe user about what it is designed to cover and provide a chance for theuser to select particular material to be drilled. This is usually done byway of an on-screen menu. Material may be organized by textbook chapters(if the program is directly correlated to a particular textbook) or someother recognizable classification, such as conjugation number or grammaticaltopic.

Next, the program should provide an opportunity for the student to reviewthe material which will be drilled. This might entail the viewing of a declensionchart, a list of vocabulary words, or a short discussion of a grammaticalissue.

When the student actually gets into the drill, he or she should not feellocked into an examination room with no options for assistance or earlyescape. Help should be available in the form of reference material and/orinstructions on how to proceed or exit from the drill. Escape should beavailable at all times. (Sometimes it is offered by the aptly named "escapekey", in the top left corner of most keyboards.)


I should point out here that it is a strong belief of mine that computerprograms are not yet--and perhaps never will be--sophisticated enough tobe entrusted with actual student testing or grading. Such usage only servesto trigger the well-established paranoia of computers (machines) havingpower over people. The chief purpose of computers in education, as I seeit, is to offer a wider variety of methods for students to practice applyingnew knowledge and receive more immediate, corrective feedback while theydo so. Any act of real evaluation should entail the value-bound, expressiveinteraction of teacher and student.

Getting back to the drill-and-practice program: questions should not bepresented in the same sequence every time the drill is run. Some kind ofrandomization or "reshuffling of the deck" should be a routineoption so that a single student can use the same drill repeatedly withoutexperiencing complete deja vu.

Students should generally have more than one chance to answer each question.This can involve several consecutive opportunities or the reappearance ofmissed items later in the sequence.

The rate of presentation should be under the control of the student. Ifthere is a limit on the time spent per item, the student should be allowedto adjust that time limit. One of the great advantages to computer drillsis the potentially "infinite patience" of the machine.

Graphics and screen layout should be both attractive and clear. They shouldbe designed to visually direct the attention of the user to the most essentialinformation and options.

Sound can be creatively used to complement a drill, but it should definitelybe able to be turned off, either by the program or by a mechanical control.This is especially necessary if the program will be used in a lab or classroomsetting.
In the case of both graphics and sound effects, caution should be exercised:it seems that the more outrageous or "glitzy" the effect may appearthe first time, the faster their sheen can wear off, and the more obnoxiousthey may become in the long run. When the special effects steal attentionaway from the material, they become counterproductive. Of course, today'sstudents have generally been so spoiled by the high quality of special videoeffects in movies and TV that there is little a simple computer drill cando to overwhelm them.


One of the more intelligent things that computers can now handle wellis the comparison of one word with another. In "computerese" aword or phrase is considered a string of characters (even the space betweentwo words is a character). Because the computer can treat a word as a groupof distinct letters, it can compare a student's answer to the correct answereither letter by letter or in measured subgroups of letters (like stemsand endings).

It is also quite simple for a program to include several different alternativecorrect answers for a single item in a drill. The larger the number of alternativesand the more carefully the program compares answers, the more time it isgoing take the computer to correct the answer. This process--and the timeit takes--is only further compounded when the string includes several wordsor a full sentence.

It is one of the great challenges of programming to allow as much complexityin answer correction as possible and still get it done in a reasonable amountof time--which usually means about one second!

And with that I will conclude my brief overview of elements specific todrill-and-practice software. There are far too many such programs to discussthem individually. Once again I refer you to the Survey of Latin InstructionalSoftware for the Microcomputer for a detailed listing and description ofprograms (available from the ACL's Teaching Materials & Resource Center).


I will, however, mention one new program here which was just added tothe Merit Audio Visual catalog. Latin Conjugation Master offers multiple-choiceand fill-in-the-blank drilling of basic verb forms in the context of fullsentences. Menu selection is done by conjugation and voice; active voiceforms are split into two groups of tenses: past and non-past. Simple text-onlygraphics are well arranged, with correct answers actually sliding into theirappropriate blank space in the sentence. A sentence translation is presentedafter the item is completed. A passing score of 70% or better initiatesan interesting display of kaleidoscopic animation on the screen.

The program records the name of the user and the date and provides a checklistof all possible drill choices, with those already "passed" somarked. There are two different sets of ten items for each of the twelvepossible drills (six on each of two disks).

A Teacher's Disk allows: editing of all material with the ability to usemacrons, printing out of drill material and student records (up to 42 studentsper disk).
Latin Conjugation Master runs on Apple II series and compatible microcomputers.The program package includes two Drill Disks (A & B), a Teacher's Disk,and an 8-page manual; the cost is $134.95, with a site license availablefor $600. For more information, contact: Merit Audio Visual, P.O. Box 392-C,New York, NY 10024.


The Elementary Latin Program at the University of Michigan will soonhave available online coursepacks, worksheets, and exercises for ElementaryLatin students. They will be provided by means of a File Transfer Protocol(FTP) Server, which can be accessed through InterNet and BitNet on mostuniversity campuses. For more information on FTP access, contact your computingcenter or Rebecca Novelli ( To get a login ID and password,contact Glenn Knudsvig (, 2012 Angell Hall/Classics,Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.


Plans are in the making for a special conference aimed at working towarda Standard International Format for Computerized Classical Lexica. "TheElectronic Scholiast" conference will emphasize working sessions ratherthan the reading of papers and will bring together scholars actively involvedin developing computerized dictionaries of Greek and Latin and related programming,such as automated lemmatizers, parsers, translation aids, and intelligenttutors. For more information, contact: Daniel McCaffrey, Classics Dept.,Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, VA 23005.

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