Sunday, October 16, 2005

What are we testing?

Day 3 of my four day vacation, called Fall Break. Mid-terms were as I predicted embarrassing. As part of my "relaxed fit semester" I gave my ethics students the following.

24 Questions in advance over the course of the semester.
I would write these on the board the week we studied their subjects, and I also included them on the class website. They had a review day to go over their answers with me in class. And, here is the kicker. They were allowed to bring any notes that they made (including a question by question set of pre-written answers if they constructed that). The mit-term exam consisted of 6 of those 24 questions, of which they had to answer Four.
Average grades for my two sections were 69% and 74% (the latter was for a 120 minute class rather than a 50 minutes).
Now, it is possible that the questions were so perplexing that even with the weeks of advanced notice the typical student could not grasp the answer. While they weren't the easiest questions, nearly everyone was simply a chapter sub-title reworked as a question (so studying should not have been too difficult).

This leads me to a hypothesis. I think my tests test something other than knowledge or intelligence. I think they test commitment. How much work is a student willing to do for a grade? Clearly, any student had the chance to get 100% percent by following these simple procedures (a) copy down the questions, (b) look up the answers (c) confirm the answers with me in class, or in my office hours (d) copy said answers on the test. Yet very few students seemed to do that, or do that properly. I suspect the reason was, my test was no high on their list of priorities. And that is fine, if a bit insulting.

So here is my question. Is commitment of this nature something worthy of testing and grading? In the long run, it won't really matter all that much if my students can remember the difference between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. So that was never something I was really interested in judging anyway. If grades are supposed to be evaluations of people's ability to learn (in some general way), then I am not sure my test provides a good gauge, since one could simply copy the answers from one document to another (though finding that information will likely result in some learning, I hope). My main concern is that commitment may not be something that I can teach. In other words, I am merely evaluating an independent feature of the students that my teaching has little bearing on. Granted, some of them may be inspired to levels of commitment by my stirring oratory, but I am dubious about that.
I've often thought that many tests end up testing something like the independent features: cleverness, memory, of people rather than the subject matter or what have you anyway, so I am not sure this is a particularly bad thing.
It may be of more value to say future employers to know just how committed a student can be to something not necessarily fascinating to them. Of course, at the same time, this may just be judging how interesting the subject matter (as taught by me) is to the students. In which case, poor average grades might be an indictment of either Philosophy or my teaching, or both.
Any hoo. Random thoughts.

Other lesson this term.
Just because they are Honor Students, does not mean they can operate independently.


At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, in many ways. It makes me wonder about my own education, as one thing. Did my professors make things so easy also, and if so, why didn't I figure it out? I got reasonable grades in college, and in some classes it was fairly obvious what was going to be tested, but I admit to being really uncertain in some classes.

But I do find your educational experience mirrors mine in the business world. Some times it is so easy for employees or potential employees to be impressive, if they would do just a little work. We used to put a note on the job advertisements that said you needed to have visited the company's web site and provide a few facts to demonstrate that you had visited. Most applicants didn't bother. Do they fail to read the instructions, or just don't care to follow them? But it was surprisingly indicative of how good the candidate appeared to us, in other measures. Those that would actually spend a few minutes looking at the company's web site were generally much more interesting candidates.

It is so difficult to find candidates who are willing to work. I don’t mean just showing up for work (although even that can even be a problem in some cases) – I mean come to work and be willing to exert effort to do things that are beneficial for the company, not just activities that pass the time until the next paycheck.

I’m starting to feel that the most important characteristic of a good employee is their working attitude and their ability to exert brainpower to accomplish goals. Skills with a subject matter are important, but perhaps less so than I thought a few years ago.

So where does that leave you as an educator? From you comments it appears as if you agree with me that education, at least through undergraduate work, is not so much about learning, but about learning how to learn and how to force your brain muscle into shape to do what is necessary. So maybe it doesn’t matter what it is that you are teaching, whether it is interesting to the students or not, it is the skill of learning and forcing yourself to study things that may or may not be very interesting to you that is the key lesson. Most of your students will go into working careers where they will do adequately, and will be contributing members of society, but some will clearly do “better” than others. Are the ones that do better those that are willing to do the work to get an A? I’m not sure. I have certainly meet many A students that I would not want to hire, while some of the C students can be quite good.

I like this statement (question) “I am merely evaluating an independent feature of the students that my teaching has little bearing on”. I don’t know. Clearly we learn how to learn as we progress from kindergarten through college, and some decide college is too much effort or too expensive or something and don’t attend, and some attend and get straight A’s. Is it predetermined from birth who will have the willpower and aptitude to do well in college? I’d like to think not, but perhaps.

It really leads me to bigger questions like “what does it mean to be successful?” “Are successful people happier?” Does it matter, in the end, that students can’t and won’t follow the obvious guideposts through your classes that you have provided? Clearly we want students to learn and to be knowledgeable people, as educators and fellow citizens, but does it really matter? Are the A students somehow better for society? It’s not clear, although I’m sure we both wish it were.

Probably too big of questions to tackle in this forum, but I couldn’t resist.



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