Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Stop telling students to study for exams"

A provocative claim from David Jaffee: we should stop thinking that encouraging students to study for exams is "responsible academic practice."

Exams have become, in his estimation, a creature of the pernicious student attitude he calls "instrumentalism":
This is the view that you go to college to get a degree to get a job to make money to be happy. Similarly, you take this course to meet this requirement, and you do coursework and read the material to pass the course to graduate to get the degree. Everything is a means to an end. Nothing is an end in itself. There is no higher purpose. 
When we tell students to study for the exam or, more to the point, to study so that they can do well on the exam, we powerfully reinforce that way of thinking. While faculty consistently complain about instrumentalism, our behavior and the entire system encourages and facilitates it. 
On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning's sake; on the other, we tell students they'd better know this or that, or they'd better take notes, or they'd better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don't do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure.
There's an echo here of my familiar complaint about grades: There's not much evidence that either one actually promotes learning, but they've become essential because of the educational system's role in credentialing students. I mean, without exams, how will we know whether a student should get a B or a B-? I kid (partially). Jaffee is probably right that an emphasis on exams (and grades) makes learning subordinate to performance in a contrived and probably artificial setting.

But one wonders whether Jaffee has drawn a much broader conclusion than is warranted. He'd like instructors to tell students "to study for learning and understanding" and bemoans the prevalence of pre-exam cramming, which leads to short-term retention instead of bona fide learning. But is the problem exams as such? Jaffee favors "authentic assessment," where students demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge in real-world situations, and formative assessments (of the Angelo and Cross variety) that enable students to develop metacogition and self-monitoring about their own learning. I favor these too (though I don't know what authentic assessment would amount to in philosophy — the philosophy classroom is its own 'real-world situation,' since there's no correlate to it outside the classroom).

Yet not all exams are cut from the same cloth. If students can succeed at all with an exam by cramming, that's a lousy exam. I take care to try to create evaluative instruments that don't reward such superficial knowledge. Likewise, we should probably broadcast to students that "studying" for exams is no substitute for studying period, or for developing the intellectual habits that lead to mastery. (Recall Mike's terrific summary of study tips for philosophy.) And as we've noted here before, testing can be a powerful way to provide feedback.

So while I share Jaffee's sense that exams often have become a monster that impedes genuine learning, I suspect that problem may not be inherent to exams, but stem from bad exam-crafting habits by instructors and bad study habits by students.

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