Tuesday, May 27, 2014

exams... what are we testing??

Most people know what the 2nd amendment is about.  But do you know what the 10th amendment says? The 17th?  I can't recall, but I can find out in under a minute using my phone.  Do you think knowledge of the amendments should be required knowledge for a citizen to vote in this country?  Do you even know how many constitutional amendments there are? 

This week our underclassmen will finish off the year by taking exams.  Each exam is 60-90 minutes long and is meant to assess learning in all of the topics discussed over the last semester.  My own children are in their rooms right now studying.

An interesting study by Larsen, Butler, Roediger from 2009 comparing repeated study of topics to repeated testing on topics demonstrated that repeated testing of students with feedback over time does a better job of improving recall.  Thus it is not enough to simply relearn ideas throughout a semester.  Students will recall information better through repeated testing. 

A 2010 study by Maitreyi Raman demonstrated that several short bursts of instruction were more effective in enhancing long-term recall that a single long session.  Thus four one hour sessions, each a week apart, led to better recall than a single four hour session.  Both of these scenarios suggest that there are a variety of means to deliver content and that all methods are not equal if the goal is improving recall.

But I guess the real question I want to ask is do we actually want to increase recall in our students?  As we think about what it is we want our students to learn, how important is it that they are able to recall civil war battles, elemental qualities from the periodic table, the unit circle in trigonometry, or the characters names from every play they read in English. 

Who were the generals at Gettysburg?  What is the atomic number of potassium?  What is the sine of 135 degrees?  Who was Othello's wife? 

Did you know the answers to these questions?  If so, congratulations!  You should try out for Jeopardy!  But what does it actually mean about you if you know them, or more likely, if you don't? 

Students spend a lot of time cramming such things into their heads, and often forget them within hours or days of exams.  Thus I would ask us to think carefully as educators, as parents, and as leaders about what we are teaching in school.  Is it important that our children be able to recall information that is readily available on the internet? 

Obviously a literate, well-informed population requires shared knowledge, a foundation of information and cultural reference that informs our decision making, advanced studies, and basic conversation.  Dare I call this foundational knowledge our common core?  (Bet you didn't see that coming.)

And while we all debate who should determine this core, what it should be, how it is best taught, and how the students and teachers will be assessed, my students and students across the nation will continue to take the same old exams.  Based on student recall on these exams, we will determine grades and futures for students, teachers, and schools.  

How much does it matter in your life if you remember the 17th amendment?  If you're trying to be a senator, probably a lot.  But for the rest of us, surely there are more important things. 

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