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Response to "Why I will not teach to the test"

[By Jonathan Groves, USA distribution list, Nov 19, 2010]

Thanks for posting this inspirational story written by Kelly Gallagher. Multiple choice questions on exams are not necessarily bad because they can serve useful purposes, but it is extremely difficult to write good multiple choice questions that assess higher-order thinking. And even those multiple choice questions that assess higher-order thinking have a few drawbacks: (1). Students can earn credit for the question merely by guessing. (2). Students can answer such a question correctly without being able to answer a similar question correctly if that question were posed as an open-response question (short answer or essay). The list of possible responses can give clues that the students would not otherwise get. (3). The student might figure out the correct answer but via flawed reasoning. And multiple choice exams do not allow us to detect such errors.

As for multiple choice questions testing facts, a student might know the answer in the sense that he or she can recognize it but cannot reproduce it solely from memory. I am sure that nearly all of us at times could not recall a name, word, definition, etc. and yet also knew we could recognize it if we saw it. Or a student's answer that comes to mind before checking the choices might be incorrect but the word or name is very similar to the correct word or name. If the list of responses does not contain this incorrect but similar word or name, then the student will probably figure out which response is correct. For instance, a student confusing Ben Jonson with Samuel Johnson may not be so confused if only one of these names is given as an answer choice. This is the second drawback I had listed above but expanded to include factual multiple choice questions.

As for the third drawback, I have always believed that a student should be able to explain his or her reasoning. Students fed on a diet that focuses on multiple choice exams end up believing that the final answer is all that matters. Furthermore, such exams do not help drive home the point that a correct conclusion does not justify the reasoning used to obtain it, that any conclusion, including a correct one, based on flawed reasoning is a worthless conclusion until correct reasoning can be established because it is possible to reach correct conclusions via flawed reasoning and also incorrect conclusions via flawed reasoning. In short, without the reasoning, we have no real reason to trust any conclusion, especially a conclusion to a question for which no one has reached an answer, but a diet of multiple choice exams do not help drive that point home to students. It is not enough for students to have knowledge: They need to learn how knowledge is established, and they need to learn how to think critically.

Focusing on just shallow answers defeats the higher purposes of learning. For instance, do we study history merely to obtain a checklist of historical facts to quote on demand? Of course not! We study history because history offers us valuable lessons: History tells us where we have been to help us further understand why we are the way we are today. History tells us what has failed, so that we need not be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Of course, not all students learn these things from their study of history, but we hope that they do. However, history classes such as the many I have had that focus on regurgitating facts will cause students to miss the point of studying history. We gain nothing from the study of history if all we do is gather facts without gathering their significance. Likewise, studying math does us little good if all we gather are facts and rules of mathematics without learning much about using that math meaningfully. An employer wishing to hire an accountant will not be impressed if the candidate can quote a sea of mathematical facts but cannot compute and cannot use any math meaningfully. One can argue that few people who cannot use math outside the classroom can quote a sea of mathematical facts, but such people do exist. And many students can get good grades on their math tests because they are good at memorizing this stuff--at least temporarily, say long enough for a test over the material--but cannot use math meaningfully. Such people have missed the point of studying mathematics because the classes they took had promoted a philosophy of learning that conflicts with the point of learning math.

Math courses designed to try to promote such learning guarantee that the vast majority of students miss the point of studying math and guarantee that they pick up bad habits for studying math that do not work for them. Comments from students in my courses make it clear to me that they believe that the way they should study math are those ways that line up with traditional math education, that line up with what all their previous math teachers have told them: Learn the rules and the facts, study the examples, and practice those examples. Okay, nothing wrong with that necessarily. But the problem is that the students do not realize that they need to learn actual mathematical reasoning and thinking, that they need to learn the "why" behind mathematics and not just the "what," that they need to focus on understanding rather than memorization, that they need to focus on the real world meanings of mathematics and not just the abstract meanings so that they can apply mathematics meaningfully to the real world, how to imagine themselves solving a mathematics problem outside the classroom, and so on. In short, these students have missed the point of studying math and have not learned how to approach mathematics so that they can study mathematics successfully.

As for writing, I believe this is the best way to assess students' abilities to think and to reason well. And writing helps students to see why they should consider writing important--not just for others but also for themselves. Writing forces them to think deeply about ideas and why they are true or at least why it is reasonable to believe they are true. And many people will have to write as either part of their careers or their lives outside school. In other cases, they might not have to choose to use written communication, but one with poor writing skills feels that he or she cannot make that choice. That person's mode of communication is limited only to the spoken word unless he or she wants to risk others thinking of him or her as uneducated.

This last point leads to a major idea: We do not know which students will most need the various tools we can teach them or how much any particular student will need any one particular tool, so we need to offer them as many tools as possible. A student who fails to learn some of these tools, such as writing, will face limited options later on either for their careers or personal lives. Knights never could tell in advance if a chink in their armor will hurt them in their next battle or how much it will hurt them, so it would have been best for those knights to prevent such chinks in their armor and to repair any that do appear.

The lack of focus on writing in K-12 produces slews of students who cannot write any better than a child can. I might not be surprised anymore, but I am definitely still horrified to see how many college students today write so poorly that one would think their children wrote their e-mails and discussion posts and papers for them. It is bad enough that their writing lacks any substance; even worse is that their writing shows that the students have little knowledge and/or respect of grammar and mechanics. Linguists and other similar experts and professional writers can argue all they want about whether there exists "correct" or "incorrect" English or dialects or whether there is such a thing as one dialect being superior to or inferior to another dialect. Such arguing does not change the fact that many people believe that those who do not or cannot use what is called Standard English are uneducated or unprofessional, so there is no doubt that the writing from many of my students would make them look highly uneducated in the eyes of many professionals. In fact, to be honest, if I were on a job search committee and if one applying to teach at a college turned in application materials full of misspellings, bad grammar, bad punctuation and mechanics, I would question that person's competence. Even if I were willing to look past that, I would still question that applicants's ability to come across to his or her students or others at the university as one who is competent. What is ironic is that many of these same students would question my competence if my posts looked the same as theirs, so I am sure that this same thing would happen to this applicant.

Finally, Kelly Gallagher believes that we have far too many standards to expect students to learn anything deeply. Perhaps so, but I would have to look into these details further to make any solid conclusions. Regardless how true she is on this point, she does raise a related valid point: Cramming any course curriculum with too much stuff prevents the teacher and students from exploring anything deeply; both the teacher and the students will have to suffice with a shallow look at everything to get through all the stuff in that curriculum. However, how much is too much or what an appropriate overall coverage means is generally not a straightforward answer.

I have heard complaints from professors at some of the schools I have attended either as faculty or student that some of the courses they teach are overloaded and prevent students from gaining any deep understanding of the ideas discussed in the course. One such example is the college algebra course at the University of Kentucky, which is not much different from standard college algebra courses. Another one is the curriculum for introductory physics at Austin Peay State University. In fact, our professor had cut some things from the course so that we have a chance to better learn some other things. I'm not sure how much that helped, but I do recall that professor being one of several I know who have complained about certain courses being overloaded and that cutting from the course could do a lot of good. And I recall several other colleagues and written sources saying that many Asian countries--at least in K-12--use curricula with less overall coverage than ours but also with a deeper look at many things than our courses do. And, of course, let us not forget how many American educators have complained that our curricula tend to be "a mile wide and an inch deep."


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