Wednesday, May 28, 2014

the psychology of exams

In college I discovered that I loved psychology and added several psychology courses to my math major as an undergrad and in graduate school.  One of those courses, History and Systems of Psychology, was a senior level survey course taught by one of my favorite undergraduate professors, Dr. Howard Thorsheim.  The course was designed to cover 100+ years of psychological study and development in detail.  At the end of the course we were to know the details of the many prominent names in psychology, their lives, their theories, their strengths and weaknesses.

I dove into this course and created pages of detailed notes and hundreds of note cards.  I aced every test along the way and was fully confident that I would rock the final exam.  I was actually excited to take the exam, thrilled that I had mastered the material and had developed the techniques and work-ethic required for excellence in a challenging college level course.

About a week before exams I was sitting in class when Dr. Thorsheim threw a wrench in my works.  He asked the class to vote as to whether the course would actually have an exam.  Not surprisingly, the class voted overwhelmingly to skip the final and with that vote, the course was over. 

At the time I felt really disappointed, as if all that work was for nothing.  It took me many years before I realized the value of the learning I had done.  Certainly this deep and thorough understanding of the development of psychology informed my efforts as a teacher of AP Psychology.  It also guided my interactions with colleagues and students and taught me much about myself.

Thirty years later I realize the value of learning for its own sake.  I am an avid reader on many topics and have done much research on topics in psychology and mathematics over the years, not because I needed to, but because I wanted to.  I often wonder how my students would react if I told them there was no exam in my class, or if I made the exam exceptionally easy and unworthy of their efforts. 

I imagine some would feel let down, as if their efforts were not rewarded, their knowledge unrevealed.  The pursuit of knowledge for external rewards requires evaluations like exams for closure, assessments to make the efforts worthwhile.

But what if kids learned for the sake of learning, studied math or science or psychology because it was interesting or useful rather that simply for a grade?  We all know there's some great psychology and a real discussion in that.

If you'd like to find out how schools of the future might be redesigned from the ground up, this article from Education Week might give some insights. 

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