Distorted Learning Through Test-Taking Culture
I read two articles this morning that note the distorted understanding of education encouraged by the rise of standardized testing as a measure of learning. The first article, "The China Conundrum: American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2011), written by Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer, describes the bewilderment of many Chinese students who head to America for higher education. The Chinese have long had a test-taking culture that emphasizes rote memorization, a practice deeply rooted in Confucian educational tradition, but they have adapted this tradition to fit the educational paradigm of standardized testing:
Students in China's test-centric culture spend most of their high-school years studying for the gao kao, the college entrance exam that is the sole determining factor in whether students win a coveted spot at one of China's oversubscribed universities. So it's not unusual for those who want to study in the United States to spend months cramming for the SAT and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl, which most campuses require for admission.The American academic culture is not yet entirely dominated by 'test-centrism' because the professors teaching today were educated in an academic environment that had not yet become dominated by standardized testing. They therefore still try to teach students to think for themselves:
Patricia J. Parker, assistant director of admissions at Iowa State, which enrolls more than 1,200 Chinese undergraduates, says students have proudly told her about memorizing thousands of vocabulary words, studying scripted responses to verbal questions, and learning shortcuts that help them guess correct answers.
She has seen conditionally admitted students increase their Toefl scores by 30 or 40 points, out of a possible 120, after a summer break, despite no significant improvement in their ability to speak English. Her students, she says, don't see this intense test-prepping as problematic: "They think the goal is to pass the test. They're studying for the test, not studying English."
During this past September's orientation on the University of Delaware's Newark campus, Scott Stevens, director of the English Language Institute, stood on the stage in front of a mostly filled theater. Behind him, on a large screen, was a stock photo of two white college students seated at desks. The male student was leaning over to look at the female student's paper. "We are original, so that means we never cheat!" Mr. Stevens told the audience of primarily Chinese students, mixing compliments and warnings. "You are all very intelligent. Use that intelligence to write your own papers."But these days, even American students are apparently less well equipped for education that does not focus on teaching toward an exam, a fact documented by Kaustuv Basu in "Socratic Backfire?" (Inside Higher Ed, October 31, 2011). Kaustuv writes about the experience of Professor Steven Maranville, who was recently denied tenure at Utah Valley University, partly due to student complaints about his teaching:
Some students didn't take well to Steven Maranville's teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor's "capstone" business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn't raise their hands. They also didn't like it when he made them work in teams.Maranville was doing nothing improper, so far as I can see. I'm particularly baffled by the complaint that he asked them questions when they hadn't raised their hands. Asking questions to get students to think is a proper part of teaching. Maranville is now in court over the university's decision to deny tenure, and he's having to defend his teaching style:
Maranville followed the Socratic teaching style and described his way of teaching as "engaged learning," according to court documents. Those records describe teaching approaches designed to go beyond lectures. He would ask questions to stimulate discussion. He divided his students into teams and gave them assignments outside class.What a baffling attitude students have! Socratic questioning presupposes student intelligence, the ability to think for oneself! Apparently, students these days look on learning as little more than the memorizing of class notes written down as the professor lectures, the aim being to pass a test, and any process that departs from the rapid conveyance of information is an inefficient waste of time. They don't see that genuine education means learning how to think, which entails slowing down to ask questions and look at an issue from various points of view as they learn to integrate facts and ideas on their own under the guidance of a good teacher.
The Socratic style of teaching that Maranville used is hardly novel. But experts say that while it remains popular in law schools, there are reasons many faculty members have never used it extensively with the current generation of students.
"When done well, you simply do not impose the teacher's idea, and try to come up with a solution through dialogue," said Michael Apple, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "In general, it is a guided dialogue." Supporters of the method see it as "a process by which you try to make the best logical argument and you focus on process as much as content," Apple said. But he added that not that many faculty members use it these days. "The reason for its unpopularity sometimes is because we are in a test-based education system. Students can be increasingly impatient where the answer is not clear and when the professor is not giving it to them immediately."
A lot also depends, Apple said, on who the students are. "It is controversial to some people, for example, students who are deeply concerned that they have to learn a certain amount of content and then take a test at the end," he said. Students may also think that they are being treated as if they were not very smart.
I don't know, of course, that Professor Maranville is actually a good teacher. Students may have a reason to complain. But the remarks by Professor Michael Apple are very revealing about the assumptions held by the current generation of students about learning due to the prevalence of a test-based educational system.
Little wonder that my teaching style doesn't quite perfectly fit either East or West these days . . .