Posted in Education

Why Teaching to the Test Fails the Student

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The madness started freshman year of college.

I went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to study Film — over the course of four years I would take over twenty-five classes on film production and film theory — and one of the benefits of the university was that it was a liberal arts school, allowing the students to take courses not just in his or her major but in such disciplines as math, science, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. Some of these liberal arts classes had their merits, while others were pure torture.

However, most of the liberal arts classes, and even some of the film classes, had one major weakness in common — the student’s grade for the entire semester would be calculated by just the midterm and the final. Out of sixteen weeks, out of potentially fifty or more hours of lecture, a student’s grade would be comprised of the average score of just two tests. This kind of grading system not only makes it that much more difficult to get an A, but it adds to stress, late night cramming sessions, and the tendency for nothing to be retained once the students leave the classroom for the final time.

Freshman year I had my one and only 8 A.M. class. It was horrible — having to wake up at 7:30 and walk across campus to go to numbingly dull three-days-a-week lectures on Western Civilizations. The teacher would pace the room for fifty minutes and discuss topics like the Twelfth Century Renaissance, and Monasticism and the Ascetic Ideal, topics often found in our twelve-hundred-page tomes that cost over three hundred dollars at the student bookstore.

Most of the material she taught acted as a sedative, which we didn’t really need at eight o’clock in the morning, and while it was expected of us to add to the discussion and take generous notes, there would never be an incentive to really try to learn anything. I would walk into the classroom and let the teacher’s words go in one ear and out the other, and then I would leave the classroom not having retained a single bit of information. I would instead be looking forward to my film class of the day; that, or lunch.

But then mid-October would show its scary face, and suddenly I’d be days away from the midterm, which was comprised of fifty multiple choice questions and three essays, where everything that had been shoved down our throats for the last eight weeks would have to be regurgitated on paper. Suddenly, there I was, after twenty-four lectures, having learned nothing, but having to show that I was a wizard in Western Civilizations so that I wouldn’t fail the midterm and be booted out of the school.

I remember those nights well — speeding through dinner, heading to the library for an all-night cram session, sitting for hours in a white claustrophobic space, my notes and the book sprawled out in front of me; I would try to retain as much of the useless information I could stand. I would stay in the library for five or six hours until finally heading back to my dorm to get a few hours of sleep, and in the morning I would rush to to my 8 A.M. final and pound as many words down to paper as I could before my tired brain would explode. I ended up getting a B- on the midterm and a B+ on the final, and I received a solid B in the class. In the days and months and years since, I’ve remembered nothing, not one single fact or idea from the class. It was a complete waste of time.

But it didn’t have to be.

The worst class I ever took at Loyola Marymount University was Ethics, during my second semester of my junior year. The topic sounded harmless enough — I figured we would have lively class discussions about various ethical situations. I assumed there would be a few essays required of us, along with those anxiety-inducing midterm and final thrown in just to ensure that we couldn’t have too much fun.

But what I got was something I’ll never forget: an elderly professor, who was at least ten years past his proper retirement date, would spend his seventy-five minutes twice a week not allowing for class discussion, not interested in our opinions, but instead obsessed with only his own thoughts and ideas. Worst of all, we had to agree with him, in every way, shape, and form. Debating this man on a topic was unheard of, and anyone who had the gall to try would most likely be chastised in front of the entire classroom.

The man would ask questions like, “Is getting an abortion immoral?” or “Should euthanasia be legalized?” Instead of enjoying a lively class discussion with such controversial topics as these, he would tell us why abortion is wrong and why euthanasia should never be allowed. We couldn’t even contest him; we had to just politely nod and shut the hell up. The class was, in every way, a disappointment, a waste of time, energy, and money.

But the class wasn’t just bad because of the teacher’s ego — once again, the scores of the midterm and final were the only factors in the student’s final grade. There was no papers, no homework grade, no participation grade, no projects. Your final grade was fifty percent the midterm and fifty percent the final. And he graded your tests not by how well you remembered the class material, or how well you could put his, not your own, thoughts into words; he actually graded these tests on how well the students’ ideas lined up with his own!

I remember having to skip the day after the midterm; I was sick and at the university’s health clinic. I got a call from my friend Katie, who was in the Ethics class with me. “He gave our midterms back,” she said. “Do you want to know your grade?” I figured I didn’t want to know. The test had been only comprised of five essay questions, and I wasn’t sure how I did. I figured I could have gotten an A or an F; it could have gone either way. “What did you get?” I asked my friend. She said, “an A.” I felt confident now. I felt like I should have at least gotten a B.

I asked for my score.

“Sixty-five,” she said.

I couldn’t believe it. After eight weeks of lectures, after eight weeks of listening to this guy expel his thoughts and ideas, the one time I tried to let my voice be heard, he shot it down, defiantly. I managed to pull off a C in the class, but the experience affected me, and still does. I vowed that if I were to ever teach a college class, I would take into account everything that crummy curmudgeon did, and do the opposite. I would actually try to get my students to learn, to engage in the material. I would make such education practices my highest priority.

Throughout my four years at Loyola Marymount University I would have the occasional liberal arts class where the teacher did everything right, like Philosophy Goes to the Movies, where our grade was not comprised of just two test scores, but also weekly homework, eight short essays, participation, and a presentation. This was the other philosophy class I took at LMU besides Ethics, and it was in every way more interesting and educational.

Although some may think movies might not be the best tool in a classroom setting, particularly outside the Film and Television building, this teacher allowed us to view films in a philosophical context, which, to an obsessive movie buff like myself, actually made me retain the philosophical concepts far better than a drier, more academic version of the class could have provided. We looked at science fiction films like The Matrix and Blade Runner, and comedies like Being John Malkovich and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and about them we wrote essays and weekly journal entries, enjoyed heated class discussions, and created a presentation in which we got to talk about our favorite film and favorite philosophical concept.

The scores of these assignments were all factored into our final grade, and even though I didn’t do extraordinarily well on the midterm — I received a low B — I ended up scoring an A for the semester, and, more important, I departed the class that December with some knowledge and ideas I didn’t have before I started the class the previous August.

We spend so much of our educational lives striving for that A, cramming for one test after another, particularly throughout middle school and high school. Sophomore year and junior year of high school are especially stressful for students because they need those good grades, not to mention, a myriad of extracurricular activities. By the time we go to college, we want a well-rounded experience, one that shouldn’t still be mired in fear of bad grades and poor returns on midterms and finals.

College, more than any other educational experience, should be a time of learning, and, most of all, the desire to learn. Too many teachers in the college setting are lecturing not to teach or expand our minds, but to prepare us for a pair of tests that merely act as poor examples of how much we managed to retain throughout the semester. The classes we do well in, the ones we actually enjoy and remember years after having graduated from college, are the classes that allow the students to have a voice, to have a chance at learning material that can be used outside of the classroom, and to have the opportunity to work really hard not just twice a semester for that golden A, but throughout the sixteen weeks on tests, essays, projects, and more, that lead to an all-encompassing final score.

Having multiple elements factored into the final grade gives each student the chance at a fairer end-of-semester evaluation, a better chance at succeeding in the class, and the possibility of a meaningful education.

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