Teaching to the Test

phd101008sI’m now (perhaps later than most) recognizing the problems caused by the practice of assessing education and basing teachers’ pay and promotions on standardized test performance by their students. I want educated people to be capable of solving a problem, of taking information and applying it, of seeking out solutions. Many current students, the products of 12 years of pre-college education in which their success is judged by their ability to provide the correct response to a standardized question, expect the same gauge of their knowledge to be applied in college (and perhaps in the rest of life).  There was a time when the question, “Do we need to know this for the test?” meant, “Do we need to understand this material and be capable of applying it?”  Now more often than not it means, “If we can repeat this phrase will we get an ‘A’?”phd120310s

Success in graduate school or in a job will come not through parroting information back to a mentor/supervisor, but through extending the available information to learn something new, to answer some new question, to solve an unanticipated problem.  I don’t now how to teach students to do this; all I can do is to encourage and reward those who make efforts in this direction.  Sure, there will be some questions on my exams that can be answered correctly with a memorized phrase, but there will also be many questions that require thought.  Let’s work to encourage thinking.

[I posted this after I was asked by students to hold a review session before the next exam, because even though I tell them that they need to know it all for the exam, they want me to tell them what they need to know (could I be any clearer?).  To attempt to address their request for clarity, I have created a web page that I will update every day with some of the questions that they should be able to answer if they understand the material from that day’s class.  To me this feels way too much like teaching to the test, and in fact offers them nothing that they could not offer themselves if they thought about the class material.  We’ll see how it goes.]

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