When writing about educational shortfalls as a professor, I always feel a little like one of the characters in this famous Nast cartoon.
Apparently, at least according to a recent editorial in the Atlanta Journal, the Georgia public universities lead the nation in the dubious honor of spending the most money for the least results as measured by graduation rate. Assuming this is true – and it probably is somewhat exaggerated – it is then important for those of us whose profession includes education to ask questions about what is wrong.
There is a structural flaw in the way Georgia students are educated, and unfortunately it shows up about half-way through university. Starting in elementary school and continuing through high school students are “taught to the test”. This is one aspect of foreign education that we really do not want to copy. Students learn to memorize rather than understand. It will work through the lower-level undergraduate classes where there is a lot of basic “stuff” to learn in order to begin to understand advanced concepts. It falls apart when the student enters advanced classwork where now the application of the knowledge is more important than mere recitation. It is not uncommon for the higher level classes to include projects instead of exams as part of the very legitimate educational aim of teaching the students to prepare professional level presentations and papers. If all the student has done is to look at the last five years worth of tests and memorized the answers then they cannot do this.
It should be obvious, that if a student cannot pass the upper-level courses, then they cannot graduate.
It is the professors and instructors job to stop this process early in the coursework. So here are a few pointers:
- The students will have a set of old exams with answers (or at least some of them will). They often will have as many as five or six years of exams. How do I know this? – I’ve had students echo old (and incorrect) answers to questions on my exams when the question looks like an one on an old exam. Therefore it is absolutely critical to make up new exams every time you give one. This can be a real pain – but the only alternative is to not return the exam papers to the students which I think is a bit unfair because they do have the legitimate use of helping the student study for finals. (I hope none of the faculty are using the canned exam questions that textbook suppliers will gladly sell you – these are also available to the students).
- Insist upon practical projects as early as is possible. When I was teaching the introduction to object oriented programming class (e.g. “java”), I wrote a simple framework for a zork or dungeon like game and had the students extend the game via inheritance for extra credit. The students who could do it really understood objects and deserved A’s. If I were teaching the class this term – I might make that the final project or a final project in lieu of an exam.
- Follow the university guidelines about plagiarism and intellectual honesty. Check that work is original or properly cited.
- Actively use anti-cheating techniques when giving exams. These include: assigning seating in exams; using multiple exams (even just two colors of paper or shifting the order of questions is enough to discourage all but the most die-hard cheats); eliminating the use of computers, cellphones and PDA’s during exams (no instant messaging if you can’t turn on the machine); and careful proctoring by a faculty-level instructor.
- Take attendance in classes. I do this all the time – even in advanced level graduate classes – because the “test memorization only” students usually do not come to class – and this way I know who they are.
- Include class participation as part of the grade. This has to be done carefully, because it is possible to abuse it or miss shy students, but it is impossible to “fake” because the student is either there and participates or is not and doesn’t. Since class discussion is not pre-scripted then it cannot be done simply by memory. (I guess Socrates was on to something)