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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 Mich. by FTP


In the last column I delineated three major categories of instructional software--drill and practice, tutorial, and simulation--and then proceeded into a more detailed discussion of simulation programs in particular. I began with simulations largely because of the strong interest expressed by workshop participants and the urgent need for more development in this area. This time I would like to tackle the category which includes the vast majority of available software, both in the Classics and in the educational arena in general.

The easiest, and therefore the earliest, task to which computers were applied on 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 enter their single letter answers on the keyboard and have the computer correct them as they proceeded through a rigidly controlled sequence of multiple-choice questions. Rarely would students have the opportunity to handle questions out of sequence or take more than one attempt to answer a question correctly. This strict regimentary methodology did much to establish the fundamental belief that computers take complete control of any situation they are engaged in and leave little room for individual human preferences.

Fortunately, computer programming has been able to develop a much more sophisticated level of "drill and practice" since then. Now, at least, there is no excuse for a student using instructional software not to have a certain minimal 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 inform the user about what it is designed to cover and provide a chance for the user to select particular material to be drilled. This is usually done by way of an on-screen menu. Material may be organized by textbook chapters (if the program is directly correlated to a particular textbook) or some other recognizable classification, such as conjugation number or grammatical topic.

Next, the program should provide an opportunity for the student to review the material which will be drilled. This might entail the viewing of a declension chart, a list of vocabulary words, or a short discussion of a grammatical issue.

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


I should point out here that it is a strong belief of mine that computer programs are not yet--and perhaps never will be--sophisticated enough to be entrusted with actual student testing or grading. Such usage only serves to trigger the well-established paranoia of computers (machines) having power over people. The chief purpose of computers in education, as I see it, is to offer a wider variety of methods for students to practice applying new knowledge and receive more immediate, corrective feedback while they do so. Any act of real evaluation should entail the value-bound, expressive interaction of teacher and student.

Getting back to the drill-and-practice program: questions should not be presented in the same sequence every time the drill is run. Some kind of randomization or "reshuffling of the deck" should be a routine option so that a single student can use the same drill repeatedly without experiencing complete deja vu.

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

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

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

Sound can be creatively used to complement a drill, but it should definitely be 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 classroom setting.
In the case of both graphics and sound effects, caution should be exercised: it seems that the more outrageous or "glitzy" the effect may appear the first time, the faster their sheen can wear off, and the more obnoxious they may become in the long run. When the special effects steal attention away from the material, they become counterproductive. Of course, today's students have generally been so spoiled by the high quality of special video effects in movies and TV that there is little a simple computer drill can do to overwhelm them.


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

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

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

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


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

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

A Teacher's Disk allows: editing of all material with the ability to use macrons, printing out of drill material and student records (up to 42 students per 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 available for $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 soon have available online coursepacks, worksheets, and exercises for Elementary Latin students. They will be provided by means of a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) Server, which can be accessed through InterNet and BitNet on most university campuses. For more information on FTP access, contact your computing center 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 toward a Standard International Format for Computerized Classical Lexica. "The Electronic Scholiast" conference will emphasize working sessions rather than the reading of papers and will bring together scholars actively involved in developing computerized dictionaries of Greek and Latin and related programming, such as automated lemmatizers, parsers, translation aids, and intelligent tutors. For more information, contact: Daniel McCaffrey, Classics Dept., Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, VA 23005.

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