SPECTRUM MAKES THE GRADE: CRAMMING IN 48K
Theo Wood does some revision and looks at examination aids for O and CSE level.
AT ABOUT this time of year those facing the ordeal of O Level and CSE exams start thinking about revision. Perhaps mock results were not too brilliant or were even disastrous. And, of course, your study notes seem to be an impenetrable mass.
Before computers the tried and tested method of aided revision was revision notebooks. Those were inexpensive and divided the subject matter into topics relative to examination questions. Computer programs can help in this area but also they can test your performance and give grades.
Science topics lend themselves more readily to this treatment, for at O and CSE Level factual learning is paramount; equations and formulae have to be learnt and their operation understood if a student is to have a chance of passing. That is not quite the case in a subject such as English Literature where although knowledge of text is necessary, that alone will not ensure a high grade; opinion and interpretation become more important.
Rose Software has produced a program to aid O Level Physics, called Light and Heat, and it deals with those areas which appear on most syllabuses. The four programs break up the subject matter in easily digested pieces, with clear instructions and diagrams.
Multiple-choice questions test knowledge of a section and if the answer is incorrect a short explanation will be given. Formulae pertaining to the subject matter are indicated also. One possible drawback is that questions are not random; once answered there is no opportunity to practise application of knowledge.
The Scisoft study program Physics concentrates on testing with five programs of random questions. That can be useful if a student has already mastered the subject and only requires constant practice at using the knowledge. It is aimed at O Level, and the more able CSE, student.
Maths is another subject which lends itself to this treatment, but Maths produced by GCE Tutoring cannot be recommended. Obviously a product of the cottage software industry, the package is little different from an average textbook. All the main subjects are covered in eight programs but little effort has been made to simplify and instruct, unlike the Rose Software program.
In many cases the accompanying text would be of little help to a student floundering with the subject. No explanation is given, in some cases, when the incorrect answer is ENTERed, which means ignorance can well persist.
In contrast, the larger publishing firms have developed alternative methods of study. A review of two Longman packages, French and Biology appeared in Sinclair User in January and its other programs follow the same pattern.
Physics comprises five programs, including Text, a database which covers all the main topics breaking them down into more accessible pieces; Formulae which tests the formulae required; and Light which enables the student to set up screen experiments using mirrors, lenses and prisms.
Longman win a prize for originality but they are not the best available. Rose Software must be congratulated on the way it presents the instructional sections, drawing heavily on the experience of the author. At the end day, however, all these packages have their shortcomings, being only study aids to certain parts of the syllabus or lacking in originality of approach.
Hill McGibbon has teamed up with Pan Books to provide the most comprehensive physics revision software packages on the market. Due to be published shortly, Pan Course Tutors cover the entire syllabus combining 25 study modules - two tapes - with a paperback book covering the course in more detail.
Diagnostic tests are taken first, rather like examination papers, followed by an analysis of answers and time taken, shown in graph form against a target time. Reports are then generated as to which modules would be useful.
Review copies were not available at time of writing, but the packages were displayed at the recent Computers in Education Exhibition and they suggest that Hill McGibbon is to be congratulated. At £14.95 the programs are almost twice the price of the others, but compared with the cost of hiring a private tutor the cost is not prohibitive.
Other software houses concentrate on the arts subjects and here Penguin Study Software has produced a most comprehensive collection of revision aids for English Literature, at both O and CSE Level. The Merchant of Venice package is representative, as all programs follow the same format. There is the conventional method of studying the play, where you can choose either to run through the acts alone, or ENTER plot, and a brief description of the plots will be given. Another feature is the facility to follow a character's development throughout the play by ENTERing, for example, Shylock - all the relevant acts, and speeches will be indicated and questions asked. The answers are not given.
Penguin has adopted an original approach in that key words form a database menu and that can be used to examine key themes. That, however, can be confusing as the key words relate to references in the text only, and when studying a Shakespeare play it is useful to develop themes overall. ENTERing 'flesh', 'Shylock' and 'revenge' will return the message, 'I have found nothing, perhaps what you were looking for was insignificant'. In The Merchant of Venice? A good knowledge of the text would be a prerequisite of gaining the full advantage from this type of software.
Akadamias Software is a group of lecturers at the University College of North Wales who have adopted the more conventional approach. The program Antony and Cleopatra illustrates the format used throughout the range. A notebook is included which contains numerous examination-type questions. The program is divided into different sections covering plot, background, language, characterisation, imagery, themes and dramatic effects.
In the revision mode a question appears on the screen with an answer. The test mode operates on four levels, differentiated by the time allowed, in the form of multiple choice questions; you have only to press Y or N as relevant. Grades are given as each question is answered and 'behind time' messages appear on the screen.
Dr Margarette Smith's approach to Antony and Cleopatra, one of the more complex of Shakespeare's later tragedies, is impressive and she produces an easily comprehensible formal and guide to the main problems of interpretation.
Akadamias Software has also produced a range of programs covering History topics, using the same format of revision and testing. Those encompass whole chunks of history, for example the Stuart period, or British History 1714-1815.
Although critics decry the use of a computer as a revision aid, those who are having difficulty with a subject or have missed some course work the programs reviewed can be extremely useful. The publishers mentioned supply programs covering a range of courses so it is worth checking for availability.
Rose Software 148 Widney Lane, Solihull, West Midlands. Tel 021-705-2895.
Scisoft, 5 Minster Gardens, Newthorpe, Eastwood, Nottingham.
GCE Tutoring, Tel 0494-711014.
Penguin and Hill MeGibbon available through most bookshops.
Akadamias Software, University College of North Wales, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2LXJ.