Searching for the Middle
Well with the fiery hellscape that was my finals over I suppose we (being myself and either you the reader or just the other voices about my head) can get back to some more intellectual digging. I would also implore anyone who is going to comment to think before you speak. There are a few things that I really detest in this world, stealing, sexual assault, violence against those who cannot properly defend themselves, and lying. If you are going to accuse me of any of these, even as a joke, it is not going to pan out well. If ever there was something that could be classified as a ‘dick move’ that sort of commentary sewage would be it. I already have dozens of daily spam comments automated out I don’t need real people adding to the mix.
So back to the topic at hand. At some point between laying down and attempting to get to sleep I suddenly had an epiphany and discovered exactly how I would like my first book to end. So I found myself now grasping full the end and the beginning but without a proper solid middle. It occurred to me further then that this tied in with a previous topic I had ranted about which was testing and education. You may be asking yourself how the hell these two are related and if it has anything to do with medians (which in this case it doesn’t).
I am a strong believer that the average professor at a United States University is an absolutely terrible tester. If you are attempting to write a documentary on how to most improperly test a class I think you can look no further than just about any class at your local college. It’s odd especially for someone who spent most of their career in college in the field of Psychology (yes I look at it like a job because that is how it is setup hardly academic anymore). You might not be able to tell given the amount of content I’ve brooded over from philosophy since I started updated daily however my first and likely lifelong passion with be that of Psychology (and its close relative in the family that is my cognitive passions Astronomy).
My brain seems to blue screen anytime I think about how professors who have gotten their masters in Psychology (So any professor in the Psychology department) can teach and test so improperly. It may not seem immediately apparent the paradox till you set back and realize these are the people who study learning and behavior for a living. If ever another form of verbal emphasis is added for fonts like underlining, italics, and bold I would ask that you mentally place that tag on the above line. It requires as much emphasis as possible because it leads me to the conundrum. Why in the hell do we have thousands and thousands of people spending hundreds of thousands of hours studying learning and behavior if we never implement it in education?
I think the greatest dissonance came in the actual course Learning in Behavior when the professor had us read a book that for an entire chapter explicitly stated why, and here is the kicker, the exact way our professor was teaching and testing was not only wrong but even counter productive to the process of learning. When I brought it up she said “We teach as we were taught.” which lead me to believe strongly that she hadn’t even read the book herself. I just found it startlingly upsetting that a professor teaching a course in behavior and learning would be acting and testing in a manner that was entirely in conflict with the slides and discussions (as well as the textbook).
I had proposed in that same class that it would seem more effective to me to have weekly smaller exams, these exams would make sure that students are quickly refreshed in the material and because of their common nature there would be little testing anxiety (as each is worth alone very little) resulting in a much more accurate portrayal of how a student is comprehending and less on how they deal with stress (which is essentially all modern exams do anymore). Likewise this system results in students understanding each professors unique (and generally widely varied) testing style so that the student can adjust their studying habits to better cope with each course.
Do you know the actual result of this proposition? The professor asked the class if they would like a system like that and everyone for the exception of two people (so basically 28 students, 27 not counting me of course) raised their hand. Of the two that didn’t one was sleeping so I count that as a possible victory ;). The professor in turn had the following complaints about the proposition.
“Well if I were to test once a week that’s an entire class period lost.” To which I responded “Weekly tests result in smaller tests. You would still have most of the class to continue.” I even gave her the example of my Greek Mythology* course which was tested in this manner. The course had an exam every Monday, the students all took the exam (which was almost entirely essay questions) and afterwards we discussed our reading and continued on for the next week of learning. To this she responded “Well Greek Mythology works like that, unfortunately Psychology can’t hold peoples attention.” I thought to myself; of course it cannot if your opinion of it is so dry. So we continued the class as all Psychology courses do, 2-3 exams, each of which determines by itself if you will pass the course or not. The interesting note is that it doesn’t matter what Psychology professors tell you will be tested on, the exam never matches the pre test information. I have joked with many non-psychology professors that I suspect it is a large scale long term study on the effects of cognitive dissonance and stress on young adults.
A professor should examine where they want to end in a course with their students. What important information they want them to gain, they should also look back upon their own time and see what information was actually vital to them further understanding the field and not simply expecting their students to be masters of the field from their class alone. Once this has been established they should examine where best to start. This places them in a field with a beginning and an end, finally they look at how best to bridge the middle.
As it stands each course expects you to leave as a master of the field and because of it the majority (I say this without reserve by looking at class averages) of students leave barely average in their documented understanding. We constantly improve the medical field (albeit its difficult to see at times with pill companies) and yet the educational field looks to be doing nothing but committing seppuku. So if you are a university professor, for the sake of your students and for a course that is not merely wasting the time of all involved, examine your testing structure and look for something that works not simply something you are comfortable with.
If you are a psychology professor and you teach in the exact same manner as your professor did 20-30 years ago (as my learning and behavior professor did) you should seriously rethink your field. Because if decades of examining the phenomena’s involved with learning and behavior have not made their way into your own educational structure then I’d say it’s utterly wasted. Knowledge that is never applied is no more valuable than ignorance.
Final Note: For those that feel I’ve addressed the problem without giving a personal solution here is how I would personally teach and test a course. First I’ll address you to read the part that begins with “A professor should” because that would be the groundwork. From there I would have weekly exams, each week I would take what I felt was the most important of the information from the previous exam and add a similar question to refresh the students memory on the next exam. Continuing this process each week until by the end of the course there is an exam with all the most essential information from earlier and the final questions from the final week. Likewise I would have an essay that asks the student on the final (since they’ll have 2 hours) to explain to me the most interesting things they’ve learned from this course. This may sound superfluous but every time I’ve seen it in action it seems to sincerely result in deep thought by a good majority of students. If I felt that I didn’t have enough time in a week to do these tests and teach I would rethink my teaching style and the material I’m covering, there is something superfluous in my information. I will end these thoughts (and be glad to clarify any unsaid information to any commenter who is curious) with a quote that was mentioned in one of my favorite video game series: Civilization IV.
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I hope that the extreme importance of this quote is easy to grasp when discussing the problem at hand.
*(The course was and is taught by a fantastic professor by the name of Diane Johnson, if you are ever in Washington and want to meet someone whose enthusiasm for their field will inspire you regardless of initial interest, she is certainly your woman. I cannot say enough good things about her to ever do her justice.)