By Lily Melendez, current student at UCSB
Debunking the ‘Normal’ Student
I am what some may call a ‘traditional’ student. I learn best by reading and writing and reading and writing until the facts are deeply ingrained into the very code of my DNA, the helix strands intermingling with arbitrary ingredients of memorized trivia— “did you know Virginia Woolf wrote all her books standing up?”—and facts carried along since preschool days: “sharing is caring.”
The reality is, however, not all students thrive in the normalized environment of reading-writing solitude that I find comforting; and it is important to focus on designing engaging curriculums that foster all types of learners to grow and become their own advocates.
I was not aware of how pivotal these differences in learning styles were in directing students’ motivation to learn until the first test in my AP Statistics class. Every class period before the day of exams, my teacher would have us play Kahoot!, an interactive, online learning game to reinforce what we learned.
The minute everyone logged onto the site, the vibrant colors and buttons flashing on each screen, you could feel the thick blanket of anticipation shake about the room; you could see the fever of competition in the electric smiles and fidgety finger-tappings of students who in lectures would often doze off, their pens fast asleep atop their blank notebooks. It was in these Kahoot! moments the ‘atypical’ students who were consistently unamused in class felt driven to learn and succeed.
Despite my being a reading-writing learner, Kahoot! was influential in directing my attention toward learning in dynamic, rewarding, and challenging atmospheres. I truly felt motivated to advance in the class and feel knowledgable. The gratifying feeling of choosing the right answer was almost addictive; I valued my education in ways I had not before, and most importantly, I was learning for the sake of learning for the first time in a long time.
Digital Tools: Tapping into a Redefined Learning Experience
The push toward digital educational tools like Kahoot! may attend to what Mike Rose, an educational researcher, describes in “Why School?” as “the experience of democracy itself. The free play of inquiry. The affirmation of human ability” (Rose 2009, 41). By understanding the practical uses of digital platforms, we can hopefully affirm and inspire a new ‘normal’ of 21st century students in their growth as unique learners.
Along with Kahoot!, the flexible, multiple-choice, social learning tool, another device that I find equally as integral in capturing the attention of many students is Quizlet. Outside of my AP Statistics class, many of my peers, and myself included, use Quizlet for a vast array of classes and educational purposes.
Quizlet is a multimedia study tool in which students can produce their own online flashcards and fortify learned concepts through a collection of audio-visual resources. It is separate from other studying platforms as it serves to stimulate memorization of vocabulary and concepts, while emphasizing the role of ‘active learning.’ In many courses I have taken, there is an absence of associative or meaningful comprehension. I have seen many friends, and myself included, fall victim to the passive, rote memorization fallacy, regurgitating terms like mindless parrots.
And, in my experience, this pressure to ‘regurgitate’ is to be expected in a system that “is never neutral” as educator, Jose Vilson writes (On ELA 2017). There are inherent standards and biases on what school is for and sometimes the expectation to score highly on a standardized test suppresses the idea of active learning for one’s own satisfaction.
Considering this issue, Quizlet guides students like me, who may feel obligated to solely learn for a grade, to attend to learning for long-term benefits. For example, I use the “Quizlet Learn” option to encourage my own mastery and layering of learned concepts through its personal study plans that adapt to my distinct learning styles. The application sends me reminders to practice study sets over a number of months, driving me to prioritize my learning to gain knowledge as opposed to a good grade on a test.
Similarly, Mike Rose mentions how in his English class, the professor manages the course in a way that reflects a continuation of knowledge. With this type of active learning, Rose feels a “confirmation of ability…with each written assignment building on the other”(Rose 2009, 14-15). In the same fashion, Quizlet helps to further affirm students’ abilities through redefining learning as a gradual and fulfilling process rather than relying on antiquated cramming techniques that do more harm than good.
Another appealing aspect of this platform is that it tailors to the learning experiences of diverse students. While I may use Quizlet to study Spanish vocabulary by writing down the flashcards on real paper, many students I know appreciate the “Audio” option to facilitate their studying or learn through “Gravity,” an interactive writing game that adheres to more tactile, kinesthetic learners.
Quizlet, along with Kahoot!, grants me the opportunity to choose what I learn and how I learn something; thus, these tools urge me to seek out my own information, a habit that can benefit me throughout my academic and personal life.
Creating Spaces for the Forgotten Student
As I tutored throughout high school, I often found myself having to adapt how I taught topics to appeal to different students. One student who particularly challenged me to reshape my attention toward teaching was an eight-year-old who struggled with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).
When I first started working with him, I could see he was disillusioned by school; he despised his English assignments and would often run around the house to avoid the stagnant process of reading and writing. I was on a mission to help this student who, despite being immensely creative and intelligent, felt alienated by his school’s narrow curriculum.
Instead of teaching his vocabulary terms through repetitive rewrites, I created fun Quizlet sets that attended to his more visual and tactile learning style with clear pictures and drawings. I would have us stand up while playing the game and have him act out certain vocabulary terms, such as shivering in fear when the word ‘apprehension’ would appear on the screen. Every session I looked forward to seeing his face light up, his puppy-dog eyes shining brightly with a newfound curiosity to learn.
By implementing these inclusive learning tools, I believe we are actively “changing [the] consciousness” of historically disenfranchised learners like my student, as Moses and Cobbs, leaders of the Algebra Project, explain. And Quizlet and Kahoot! have both aided in ‘changing consciousness’ by having their study guides be universally accessible and sharable, attending to “opportunity structure[s] for every student” to learn without limits (Moses and Cobbs 2001, 6-10).
In other words, apathy is not born, it is made, and recognizing we can adjust education to uplift disheartened groups is a worthy course of action.
Duolingo: Bridging Language Barriers
In speaking upon the role of accessibility, one final artifact I think attends to an inclusive learning environment is Duolingo. Duolingo is a language-learning application that combines interactive audio-visual technology to appeal to a larger audience of learners across the globe. I have used Duolingo while taking AP Spanish to further assess my writing abilities and review vocabulary. The platform is effective as it emulates a ‘personalized learning’ structure in which the app constantly builds upon the questions I answer correctly or incorrectly to better suit and challenge me.
The principle reason I value this device is how it focuses on developing connections through community language building. When I was in middle school, my family housed two foreign exchange students: one from Germany and one from Brazil. They were experiencing American culture for the first time—an exciting yet overwhelming feat; and I wanted to help bring them a sense of familiarity. I began using Duolingo to learn about their cultures and some key phrases from their separate languages. Even if I pronounced words imperfectly, our relationship grew as we began to open up a natural dialogue about our cultural experiences.
Most importantly, devices like Duolingo focus on user-friendly formats that attend to all people regardless of financial or living status to learn any language they desire. And, as English and Spanish are vital languages for most careers in America, the site allows me and others an easier, financially-feasible way to attain more job opportunities.
Although I have used Quizlet and Kahoot! more often in academic contexts, the main difference in my Duolingo usage was that it was purely for my holistic growth as an individual. I wanted to expand my cultural awareness, and Duolingo attended to this through its “Stories” tab in which I could learn language through listening to relevant cultural narratives. I could also engage in safe online chatrooms to practice the language with other speakers through Duolingo’s “Discussion” tool. Through the site, I could truly become my own advocate in my learning process.
Some may argue that digital tools create harmful habits due to their ‘instant gratification’ formats. Students may feel subject to use online applications merely to receive an instant feeling of success instead of focusing on learning to apply knowledge in relevant ways. Also, only using digital tools can leave out learners who already thrive in more traditional atmospheres. Ultimately, it is important to acknowledge the most appropriate ways to incorporate digital tools to boost students’ understanding rather than hinder their progress.
Looking at my experiences, I believe that digital platforms like Kahoot!, Quizlet, and Duolingo have revolutionized how attention is invented within education. By appealing to unique learning styles, we can continue to uplift communities who feel alienated by traditional curriculums and redefine the ‘normal’ student as one who is both self-reliant and driven to learn.