Why do we take tests? What is the difference between assigning a test and assigning an essay? I’m sure one of my professors could give a very different answer from my own, but it is something I debate with my fellow students constantly.
The first presumption I will make is that students take classes so that they will gain knowledge and mastery in a specific field. Of course, this is a theoretical assumption, as I know many people, including myself, who have taken a class for a number of other reasons (GERs, post-grad jobs, parental nudging, etc.). However, this is an institution of learning and growing, and if there were no way to incentivize students to learn and grow, such as through grades and examinations, then we simply might not do it. If none of my classes had grades, I would probably move my mattress onto Foss Hill in April and live there until graduation.
So, we have to have some way to encourage students to master the material. Psychologist Dan Pink explains that the appreciation of mastering something is one of the best motivators for improvement. My question is, in what way does a test encourage mastery of material? In my limited experience in academia, very little. Studying for a test and then taking that test is akin to an actor studying lines and memorizing them. In the same way that a Shakespearean actor can memorize Othello and not know the meaning of the words, a student can get an A on a test and not truly understand the words written on the page.
An essay is slightly better, since an essay promotes substantive thinking on one subject, taking the tools that you have learned in a class and then building on them. However, this also encourages mastery of only a small sliver of the course material as opposed to the entire course. I admit that I have committed the crime of ignoring all course materials excluding those relevant for an upcoming paper assignment.
I feel as if teachers have their hands tied, knowing that they are parts of an imperfect system but incentivized to continue with it although it encourages only partial mastery (or no mastery at all). If I am a visiting or assistant professor hoping to gain tenure at a prestigious university like Wesleyan, why would I break from the status quo and risk my career with an outside-the-box approach to teaching?
Sometimes, it even seems as if professors are encouraging students to strengthen this harmful structure of education. For example, I recently wrote a paper for my government class and found myself constricted by the use of an “academic source.” By definition, an academic source is one that has been peer reviewed by other academics.
I feel that the best way to encourage strenuous effort while allowing room for complete comprehension would be to structure classes around peer-to-peer participation with an academic moderator. Too often you see teacher-oriented participation, with students directly addressing the professor instead of engaging with peers. This encourages students to make comments that they believe the professor wants them to say, instead of thinking independently and critically on a subject.
However, a discussion-oriented class also favors students who are good at public speaking and could dominate softer-spoken students. There are many ways to encourage participation, though, like with short answer responses mediated through Moodle. The current Moodle format that is commonly used is one where, again, students are engaging the professor and not other students. I hope professors can creatively think of a way to encourage students to engage with other students in order to incentivize creative and thoughtful responses as opposed to “I hope this gets me a good grade for participation” comments.
The most important realization that I’ve had during my time at Wesleyan is that grades are secondary to the learning process and, most importantly, to our development as critical thinkers. The current academic climate is one that encourages students to participate in a broken system. At the end of my time at Wesleyan, I hope that I have accomplished much more than knowing how to be a better Wesleyan student.
Dubbs is a member of the class of 2014.