What We Test For

I gave an exam this past week, not an extraordinary event for most of us, of course.  The discussions I have leading up to the exam are always interesting, though.  Mostly, the students ask about the format of the test, at least on the first one.  They are as concerned with the types of questions as they are with the actual content of those questions.  They’re trying to understand how I’m going to try to get them to convey what they know, which makes sense.

Whenever I talk about exams with students who haven’t taken one from me before, I always tell the same story.  I was teaching a sophomore-level literature survey course more than a decade ago now.  One student, whom I had taught in three of her first four semesters, so we knew each other well, came up to me after I had given the exams back.  She said, “Dr. Brown, I don’t mean to offend you”–which means she’s about to offend me, of course–“but your exams are easy.”  I replied, “Leslie, that’s because you do the reading, come to class, participate in class, and take good notes.”  She replied, “Oh,” as if she had never thought about that connection before.

That is how the connection should work, though, isn’t it?  If students are doing the work we ask of them, and they are able to do that work to the level we expect, then they should do well on our exams.  This has always seemed rather obvious to me.  For students who do the work, my exams should be easy.  However, I have found that when I tell this story, students are still surprised by that connection.

When we talk about exams, what I learn is that there are professors for whom exams do not work like this.  Instead, exams seem to be a way for the professors to show how smart they are, as they put questions on the test that are designed to trick the students, as if someone with twenty years of experience cannot outsmart someone with two.  Other professors use tests as a way to punish those who are not reading the textbook, despite the fact that those professors don’t use the textbook in class in any meaningful way.

And then there are the professors who use tests simply to establish a reputation as being hard.  Note that those professors are usually not described as challenging, which is different.  Hard professors are those where students spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for exams or working on assignments that have little application to the class itself.  They memorize facts they will promptly forget because the professor wants them to do know every single detail, despite the fact that the professors themselves have to look up most of those details whenever they prepare to teach.  Professors who are challenging demand a high level of performance from the students, but also work hard themselves to prepare students for that level.  Both classes require a good deal of work, but the second one gives a real reward.

It seems obvious that exams should cover what the focus of the class has been to that point.  If students spend a good deal of time discussing various ideas in class, then those ideas should form the core of the exam.  If it is a lecture class where students are expected to write down an inordinate amount of facts (like a science class, for example), then that’s what the test should cover.  I tell my students that they should not be surprised by what shows up on one of my exams.  They might not know every question or quotation, but they should at least see it and think, “Yeah, that makes sense.”  If not, then the problem is with me, not with them.

The purpose of an exam should simply be to judge whether or not students are learning the material the professor values.  That material should form the basis of the course.  Thus, the two should go together clearly.  If that means that my exams are easy, so be it.  What matters to me is that students are learning what I hope for them to learn.

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Can We Be Too Student-Centered?

I read an article this week about class discussion.  The author, Chris Friend, argues that professors tend to dominate discussion, guiding it to a pre-ordained ending, which is almost identical to lecturing.  He argues that professors should let students go wherever they want with discussion.  In fact, he leads classes where he doesn’t really even talk.  He takes notes on a laptop connected to the projector in the room, putting in a question from time to time, though the students are free to ignore those.

His idea is definitely radical, and it comes at a time where I’ve been thinking about making my classes more student-centered.  Despite the fact that I love class discussion, I always feel like I do too much of the talking.  I have a feeling most of us who teach feel that way.  We spend a good deal of time trying to come up with ways to get the students to talk more, so we will talk less.  One idea I had recently is about as decentered as Friend’s approach.  I teach a Contemporary Literature course every fall.  I joke that I could create five or six different reading lists, given the diversity of contemporary fiction and the lack of a clear canon.  I thought, then, that it might be interesting to just let the students put together the reading list one semester, just to see how it goes.

I won’t do so, though, because I had another thought shortly after that.  I remembered that I know a lot (and I mean a lot) more than they do about contemporary literature (and literature, in general).  Granted, some of them have read things I haven’t, and some of them definitely know some contemporary theory better than I do; however, I still have read much more widely than they have in this area.  While they might know a few authors who might be worth studying, I know more than a hundred, easily.  In fact, I used to send them a survey to see what they had read, as I wanted to avoid duplicating majors works they had already covered.  They usually told me that the survey made them feel dumb, as they had read maybe one or two works our of thirty or forty (I explained that the point of the class was to close that gap, not to make them feel stupid).

One could argue that class discussion is different, that they don’t have to have a set body of knowledge to be able to interpret literature well and contribute to the conversation.  I would agree, but I also remember an experience from early in my college teaching career.  I was dating a young woman who lived a couple of hours away, and she came to visit one day.  Since I was teaching, she came and sat in.  We were discussing Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that day, and we had a pretty good discussion, if measured by student contributions.  I asked her later what she thought, and she agreed that discussion had gone well, but she added, “It would be better if you know what you wanted them to get out of class today, though.”

She was right.  I was content to simply go talk to the class and have a good conversation, but I had no idea what I wanted them to walk away with.  Friend would argue that I should simply lecture if I want that, but I think there’s a middle ground here that would work.  I can have clear goals for my class discussions, a short list of ideas I definitely want them to cover.  However, I can still leave room for the students to lead me in directions I had not expected, sometime even in directions I would not have found on my own.  Otherwise, we become like the stereotypical academics who talk and talk and talk and never really get anywhere.

I Am Not Charles Barkley, and Neither Are You

When I was coming up through high school, college, then on into graduate school, Charles Barkley was a rather well-known and outspoken basketball player.  Probably his most famous comment from the time is simply, “I am not a role model.”  He went on to state that his ability to dunk a basketball did not mean that he should help raise people’s children.  In the same way and around the same time, Michael Jordan was asked about Nike’s possible use of sweatshop labor.  Jordan claimed that he was not a political activist, just a basketball player.

In much the same way, I often hear my colleagues in this profession make similar statements, arguing that we professors are not, in fact, role models.  Not that we aren’t political, of course, as everything is political for us these days, but that we have no claims to authority.  Many of us are uncomfortable with the titles that separate us from our students, so we go by our first names, treat students as friends or peers, not as people who know less than we do, just people who know different material than we do.  Our classes sometimes become so student-centered and democratic that we might as well not show up, as students are asked to write the syllabus, select the readings, and lead the discussions.

Granted, that is an extreme position, but it highlights the discomfort we have with our positions of authority, our roles as models for our students.  However, we, like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, are role models, no matter how often we protest.  Let me quickly say, though, that I am not arguing for an early-20th-century description of teachers that lists such requirements/ restrictions as “You must be home between the hours of 8 PM and 6 AM unless at a school function” or “You may not dress in bright colors” (New Hampshire Historical Society).  However, if we think that students are not listening to us on matters that go beyond our field of expertise, that they are not watching us to see how to be not only professionals in our field, but adults, we are only fooling ourselves, and we are avoiding responsibility for what we say and what we do.

A few years ago, I taught the introductory class to our discipline, so I had a number of younger students enrolled, mostly sophomores, but a few first-semester students, along with a few students who should have taken the class earlier.  One day, we were somehow talking about the religious season of Lent, and I made a joke about what people give up.  I said simply, “That’s right, my giving up eating chocolate for 40 days helps me participate in the sufferings of Jesus.”  I laughed; several students laughed; we all went on with class after what was clearly a joke.

The next semester, a spring semester, I was teaching a sophomore-level literature survey, and a few of the students from the previous course were now enrolled in it.  One day, I saw one of them drinking something, a vitamin water, I believe, as I was giving back quizzes.  I asked her if she wasn’t eating anything with it, as the class met around lunchtime, and students often brought snacks to class.  “No,” she said, “I’m fasting for Lent.  I thought I should do something more challenging, like you said last semester.”

I spent the next 40 days checking on her whenever I saw her, whether in class or not.  I asked how she was doing, and I even asked her friends.  I was quite relieved when Easter came, and I knew that she was going to be fine.  I never told her how worried I was, though, as I did not want her to worry herself.

She was in a course a couple of semesters later, and Lent came up yet again.  Someone asked me what I was giving up, and I mentioned sweets.  This same student was in this course, and she looked at me with disbelief:  “You’re only giving up sweets?  After what you said about Lent?”  Three years later, she still remembered that comment.  I explained my joke from several years earlier, but I also talked about how much students take in from their professors.  I wanted those of them who plan to be teachers to know that their students will listen, and I wanted them to know that we know they hear us more than they will admit.

Of course, these types of interactions occur much more often than we would care to admit, and they happen outside of the classroom, as well.  We have students come to our offices and talk about problems that we are clearly not trained to handle.  My minor in Human Relations from more than 20 years ago does not begin to prepare me for what students share and what they need help with.  I’m not talking about issues that clearly require counseling; instead, I’m talking about students seeking help about dealing with their parents or struggling with issues of doubt and belief or thinking about proposing marriage to another student.  Students come to us with these questions because we might be one of the few adults in their lives who are not their parents, but who are also people they want to be like.  Thus, as with Charles Barkley, whom kids wanted to be because he could dunk a basketball, students want to be like us because we are successful in our profession, and that desire of imitation goes beyond writing and thinking ability.

A few years ago, I had two students come to talk to me about their parents’ lack of acceptance of their relationship.  They were seeking counseling about the situation, and, of course, they were talking to their peers about it.  However, they wanted my advice as someone who is almost twice their age and who has simply lived much more than they have.  They admitted that my advice often went against what their peers were saying, which should not surprise any professors, but they sought me out precisely for that reason.  They needed an adult to counteract what their friends were telling them.  In the beginning of our conversations, they listened to their friends more often, but, by the end, they listened to me.

Along the same lines, a recent graduate sent me a Facebook message to discuss a crisis of faith she was experiencing.  The main problem was not theological; it was that her questions were distancing her from her family, which left her with no other adults she could trust to have this conversation.  Thus, she turned to someone whom she had seen for the past three years of her life and who had shaped her in other ways.

I once worked with a colleague who would never have admitted that he had any responsibility for what came of his interactions with students.  While he loudly proclaimed the liberal arts tradition’s responsibility to raise difficult ideas, to push both envelopes and buttons, to subvert the dominant narrative, or whatever one wishes to call it, he never claimed any responsibility for what happened to the students whose worlds he had shaken.  He left students confused and angry, not at him, of course, as he had opened their eyes to the truth, but he left them with no way to build a foundation for themselves, no help to reconstruct a worldview that he had helped demolish.  He would like Charles Barkley, I’m sure.

Finding the Right Level

I had what I thought was a good plan for a class this week.  I was teaching two short stories in my first-year writing class, and I had found an interesting connection between them last semester, which I was hoping to build on this semester.  The two stories are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and Tea Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn.”  I wanted the students to see that in the first story, story itself is used to motivate people, while, in the second story, the young boy is told a story to prevent him from doing something.  I like it when stories can relate to real life, so I wanted the students to reflect on these ideas.

What I did, then, was spend the first two thirds or so of class talking about the two stories and getting the students to see these differing roles stories play.  That part went fine.  Then, though, I wanted them to come up with examples of other stories that both inspire us and limit us (or at least keep us from doing something).  I gave them an example of each, then put them into small groups to let them go to work.  The results were rather disappointing.  I don’t blame them, though, I blame myself for this one.

I had given them a task they were not prepared to do as students in their first semester of college.  They just can’t think at that abstract of a level, even after they’ve been given an example or two.  They went with basic examples, such as stories parents tell to keep their kids from doing something, which are fine, but I was hoping for stories that went beyond that.  I wanted them to see how stories we tell on a national level or even just a community level (my example came from a myth about relationships on our campus) exclude people whose stories don’t fit with that narrative, something like the American Dream, for example.

What I should have done, I know now, was to give them numerous examples and ask them to think through how those stories inspire us or limit us (or both, as stories are more complicated than one or the other, most of the time).  That would have helped them begin to see the positive and negative power of stories, but it would not have required them to hit a level of thinking they’re just not ready for yet.

This is one of the most challenging parts of teaching for me, even now.  I know what I want students to be able to do, but I have a tendency to expect them to be able to do too much too soon.  That’s better than expecting too little of them, certainly, as I would rather push them too far than not push them at all.  Still, if I continually push them too far, then they can get frustrated and shut down or just not learn what I’m hoping they learn.

One way to avoid this is to think of the entire semester as one long class period.  Everything we do this week should be building toward something for the next week.  That way, I can think of today’s class, not as one chance they have to get an idea, but as one step toward learning overall thinking skills that I want them to have by the end of the semester.  That’s what comforts me about class this week.  They might not have gotten the idea I was hoping they would see yet, but I have more chances, and that class meeting was just one step on the way.

Technology in the Classroom

There have been a few articles recently on the use of technology in the classroom.  Unlike the recent move to include more technology (such as having students use Twitter to ask questions/make comments in a live stream during class), these articles are talking about why they have removed technology from the classroom (something more along the lines of how I think).  First, Anne Curzan talks about why she asks students not to use laptops in her class.  Second, Louise Katz presents a classroom from fifteen years ago: one without cell phones.

What I really like about both of these is the way the professors explain their thinking, especially Curzan.  Most people believe they can multitask, but studies since the mid-1800s have shown that we simply can’t do it.  I hear people talk about how our brains will evolve, but they don’t seem to understand that evolution takes thousands of years.  A species doesn’t evolve in a generation or two.

I don’t ban laptops, but my classes aren’t really designed for students’ having to take down copious amounts of notes; thus, I don’t have many students who use them to begin with.  Cell phones, however, have always been banned in my classes, and I’ve gotten even more diligent about that this semester.  They seem to be the device that distract students more than any other, and banning them has been quite helpful.  I guest lectured in one of my colleague’s classes last semester, and she was surprised that I taught for seventy-five minutes and didn’t change activities once (and the students stayed right with me).  She had been told that this generation must have those changes, given their short attention span.  Without the technological distractions, they do quite well, I’ve found.  As more and more of us limit the technology, they should do even better.

Essay Acceptance

I have an article coming out in the October 2014 issue of The Teaching Professor.  If you’re not familiar with their newsletter (and conference), you should look into it.  It’s a really good place to find ideas for teaching, especially for those of us at teaching institutions.  Maryellen Weimer has been working on it since the late 1980s, and she does great work (she’s a wonderful editor, speaking as an author).  I hope you’ll check it out.