Evaluating Instructional Materials
 Dr. Wes Leggett

When evaluating instructional materials, whether they be texts, videos, software, or websites, there are a variety of issues to consider. The materials you use in teaching your classes need to be accurate, well written, easy to use, and appropriate for the learners who will be using the materials. When deciding which materials to incorporate into instruction, make careful consideration of each of the following issues:

Age-level

Determine whether the material is written at a level that is appropriate for learners who will be using the materials. If text-based materials are being used you will want to evaluate the reading level of the material to make sure that it is written at a level your learners will be able to read. You will also want to make sure that the content of the material is appropriate for your learners. The material may be overly explicit, or the concepts discussed may be beyond the ability of the learners to understand.

Pedagogy

Pedagogy is defined by Webster as the art, science, or profession of teaching. When evaluating instructional materials you need to examine them using your knowledge of the art, science, and profession of teaching. Examine the materials from the perspective of a teacher. In taking this perspective, you will want to examine the instructional quality of the materials and their usefulness as an instructional tool. Examine the accuracy, currency, relevance, readability, grammar, spelling, and instructional usability.

Make sure that the material is accurate and up-to-date. Have you ever read something in a textbook, or seen something in a news report, that you knew was incorrect? I remember vividly reading something in my high school U.S. History text that I knew was incorrect because I had read several biographies about the individual being discussed. In some fields, the development of new theories, new procedures, new products means that in many cases information is frequently outdated as soon as it is published. The almost daily upgrades in technology make it difficult to remain current. I try to limit the effects of constant change by using resources that are updated on a frequent and regular basis. The medical and science fields have similar problems with remaining current. Geography and current events also experience change and development on a regular basis as our world continues to evolve and develop.

Determine the relevance of the information included in the materials. Will it be relevant to your students? Does it relate directly to the content and standards you are teaching? Make sure that the material is written in a manner that will catch your learner's attention. With software and websites you will want to look at the feedback provided to learners. Is the feedback relevant to the content being taught? Is it specific? Is it appropriate for the learners?

It may seem silly to have to consider it, but check the readability, grammar, and spelling accuracy of the instructional materials. More frequently than we'd like to see, materials are poorly written, difficult to read or understand, and riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes. Check and make sure that grammatical errors and spelling mistakes are kept to a minimum. You will want the materials your learners read to be well written, modeling good communication skills.

Examine the instructional usability of the materials. You will not only want to know that the material supports your content and objectives, but also what instructional methods it will support. Is it something that must be used individually, or can you use it for whole group or small group instruction? Is it designed to be used with cooperative groups? Look at the support materials that accompany the primary product. It is especially helpful if multimedia products such as videos, software, or websites are accompanied by support materials, worksheets, or instructional guides. Are the materials well written? Do they parallel the primary product and support its use? Examine all of the materials provided just as you would examine all instructional materials.

Ease of Use

This usually applies to multimedia materials such as videos, software, and websites. Software and websites can be especially problematic. If a program or site is poorly written it can be difficult to navigate through the materials, even though the information may be of high quality. It can be frustrating when you start a program and are not sure how to proceed. It can be even more frustrating if you decide you want to quit, but there is no visible way to close the program. To really evaluate the usability of the software, it's a good idea to try and do as many things wrong as possible. Try to find errors in the program, before your learners do.

Tie to Curriculum

Instructional materials are developed by a variety of sources and they are of varying quality. The biggest problem is that a lot of the materials being developed do not relate directly to the curriculum that teachers are required to teach. It is becoming more and more difficult for teachers to teach all of the curriculum that the state and school district require them to teach. There is very little time for teachers to add non-prescribed content to the curriculum. Take this into consideration when evaluating instructional materials. Does the material address some piece of the curriculum? What areas does it apply to? Does it do it effectively? Make sure that the materials you use address the content you are required teach effectively and efficiently.

Learning Strategies Emphasized

Examine the instructional materials from the students point of view. Determine if the material will involve and interest your students. Will they find it to be relevant and interesting? What types of learning strategies will it involve the students in? Is interactive learning supported? Will it involve the learner in active learning? Some text-based materials, and many software programs and websites can be classified using the following identifiers: resource, drill and practice, simulation, tutorial, or game. These can each be used to achieve different learning goals. A resource can be used to look up information and can be used to support the project-based or problem-based learning. Drill and practice develops rote learning of facts. Simulations can be used to help learners to experience situations that they would not be able to experience otherwise. Learners can go on field trips to the Amazon rainforest, perform science experiments that would be too dangerous to conduct in the classroom. Tutorials provide an means for teaching new concepts, procedures, and skills. Games can be used to reinforce skills and to build automaticity. You will want to align your learning goals with the instructional methods that the materials readily support.

Conclusion

Don't simply choose to use certain instructional materials because they look like they will teach the content you want taught. Look at their quality and relevance. Many of the developers of instructional materials are not teachers. They are content experts, computer programmers, and writers. When evaluating instructional materials, examine them from a variety of perspectives:

Evaluate the materials from a perspective of a teacher, examine the pedagogy taking into account the quality, accuracy, and usability of the information. Evaluate the materials again from the "trouble maker". Try to make mistakes. If you are evaluating a piece of software, try and make the program crash. See what type of negative feedback the program will give the student who gives an incorrect answer. If instructional plans are provided, check and see what opportunities are available for things to go wrong when conducting the lesson. Look at the instructional materials from the learner's perspective. Remember that your learners can represent a wide range of characteristics including gifted, learning disabled, behavior or attention deficit disordered, and physically or emotional challenged. Consider the following questions from each of the perspectives just identified: Are the materials interesting? Are they relevant? Are they interactive? Do they maintain motivation? Do they foster self assurance and independence?

Choose your instructional tools wisely. Use those tools that will provide your students with quality instruction and actively involve them in the learning process. Choose tools that are effective and efficient tools designed to support not only learning but also the curriculum you are required to teach.

Copyright 2000-2004 Dr. Wes Leggett
Last updated 08.14.04