Saturday, April 16, 2005

Test me on what I know, not on what I don't know

When my kids learned to spell in grade school (the younger one is still going through this) the teacher would give a list for the week on Monday, the kids would try to memorize the list and each night during the week we'd practice the words and work them through the ones they didn't get right, and then most weeks on Friday they'd have a test in class. Later on, perhaps, one learns additional spelling from reading but at the outset this seems to be the tried and true way to learn to spell. It is as close as one can get to the pure form of learning as memorization.

For a lot of people, I fear, and in the back of my head I'm thinking about those who advocate for No Child Left Behind, this is the conception of how school teaches students. My colleagues Robert Baird and Al Weiss characterize this as the linear model of: (1) push content, (2) learn content, and (3) test content. A student who expects to learn this way is apt to echo the refrain in the title of this post after confronting an exam that departs from this pattern. (And I confess that when I was teaching the big intermediate mircoeconomics class I caved into those student expectations so I wouldn't get hammered too badly on the end of semester course evaluations.) But this is not what education should be like at the college level. We're supposedly about critical thinking, not about "Columbus sailed the ocean blue, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah."

Students think that college is about getting answers rather than about asking good questions. They think it is about learning truth rather than making good argument. When I hear a frustrated student say "I'm not sure what you're looking for," I too get frustrated. What I'm looking for is their point of view, their opinion that they can justify with a reason, a reason that itself is not patently false, and their skepticism that perhaps there will be evidence that points another way, that their view is conditional on what they know now, not some everlasting truth.

This is where the technology can be really helpful and the technology can assist the students in becoming better readers and thinkers. And the way to do that is to blend assessment and presentation, not assessment of the parroting type, but rather assessment that encourages the students to use the presented ideas in some specific context and to translate those ideas into something that is familiar to them. Good instructional materials do this. The virtue of the technology in this regard, especially for students who are not used to the approach, is that there are ways to avoid staying stuck. So the students can be encouraged to reframe their own thinking and get used to the act of reframing.

In my field of microeconomics, this is especially important as the subject itself is mostly theory and at the undergraduate level the vast majority of the students are not going to end up being economic theorists. If they can't analyze a situation with the tools the theory provides, they have gotten essentially zero out of the course. I'm afraid that is all too true for the students I teach, including a few who earn A's.

This is obvious to me and I think it is obvious to most of my colleagues. The question for me is why it is not obvious to the students. Why do they think they can get through college the way they learned to spell?

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