Through policy and culture, the way we test students in the United States has begun to show that we do not assess students on knowledge and understanding as much as we do on memory. The consequences are both economic and personal and relate to problems concerning critical thinking. In the strip above, Calvin demonstrates the predicament. He finds fault in the “system” and the way it values information. Many students would relate to his caustic sarcasm.
To understand the problem of testing, we should understand its function. One part serves to gauge how much a student has learned. The other part allows for categorization — testing is an effective tool with which we can compile rankings, establish grade-point averages and help get a visual standing of a student’s academic progress. These are fair reasons to test.
Nevertheless, testing has its limits, especially in the job market. In a recent New York Times article, Kevin Carey explains two studies conducted by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. The first, “Academically Adrift,” suggested that collegiate students learned hardly anything in their four years; critical thinking and analysis suffered the brunt of this stagnation. The second study found that this lack of critical thinking was statistically significant when applied to the job market: students who learned more effectively showed more positive economic signals.
But if tests gauge what we learn, and it appears that we learn nothing at all, what are we left with?
These studies bring us back to an old debate: teaching fact versus teaching skills. Calvin does not seem to appreciate the facts. But what makes him such a unique character is his uncanny ability to think critically on worldly matters. He critiques post-modern art, espouses existential philosophy, examines the consumer culture — no wonder he’s a cynic that holds a remarkably low opinion of others and a superior opinion of himself. It’s hard to call the boy dumb, despite his inability to make four out of two and two. His intelligence is what seems to be lost in traditional testing.
Given that critical thinking is the most effective method of learning, we must learn how to test it properly. A large part of the process comes from experience, interaction and observation. It is active. Our tests should be just as active. Students should be tasked with asking their own questions, and using prior knowledge to attempt an answer. They could write a paper, give a presentation; many subjects will call for different modes of assessment. This form of testing is particularly useful in higher education, where students are closer to the frontiers of their field.
Ultimately, this form of testing would help students beyond the classroom — they would be able to approach ambiguity in the workspace with a greater set of tools. The downside is that it forsakes some ease of categorization. These assessments could fluctuate varying on the professor and different rubrics. But if the final outcome is sustainable knowledge, and a more economically sound workforce, this may not be so bad.
Unfortunately, we live in a multiple choice culture. And multiple choice by itself is a form of expediency and efficiency. In my psychology class last year, I sat in a lecture with 500 other kids. We were never assigned an essay. To give even one essay would mean hours of grading for teaching assistants. It would be impractical. But at what point does practicality become a hindrance to learning? At 500 kids, it seems. I barely remember a thing. At the time, I earned a “B,” and like Calvin, I felt like I played the system. But now, I feel like the system played me.
Education will always be a two-way deal. You need to be open, willing and motivated to learn. But that means your mentors and teachers must meet you with proper guidance and forms of assessment. I put a lot of effort into psychology, but I don’t think I could earn a “B” today. Sure, some things will always be lost, but I honestly feel like I would earn a “D” or an “F.” That’s too low.
Testing is a stressful process any way you go about it. Tests are what affect report cards and transcripts more than anything else. As our society becomes more competitive, the test will need to reflect what students have learned. Students and educators have a dual responsibility to ensure that tests properly assess critical thinking, and that there is a fair way to rank students according to this metric.
To test ELI FLESCH on his knowledge, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @eliflesch.