My mother, like most parents, had stock sayings she used whenever my clichéd irresponsible conduct warranted clichéd commentary. “Wipe that smile off your face.” “Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about.” “God, give me strength.” Among the more interesting was: “You need to have your head examined.” This usually followed some unusual behavior on my part. Jumping out a second story window (I wanted to see if I could make it out in case of fire); buying mice without permission for a science fair project (my mother has a deadly fear of mice); taking a bus and then a subway from Jersey City into New York City at the age of 13 without telling anyone (I was planning to go to high school in NY so I wanted to see if I could get there on my own). “You need to have your head examined!”
For the past week at my school we have been conducting head examinations… more commonly known as midterms. I had to create an exam of approximately two hours, learn how to use the Scantron for the true/false and multiple choice portions of the test, develop integrative essay questions, consider different versions of the exam to discourage cheating, prepare a study guide, and review with my students to help them get ready. I now have several days of correcting to look forward to. Given my expectations for length of the written essays, I can now say with confidence I do need to have my head examined.
One of my first reflections as I was forming multiple choice questions was that I was now doing what I often stood on a soap box to preach against when I was with the Quaglia Institute: Asking students to choose one right answer from among four available in a (debatably relevant?) display of memory and convergent thinking. Rather than inviting a divergent, expansive, creative thought process, these questions (at least in this part of the test, if not the essays) asks students to think narrowly. To think what I think. To know what I know. To find the right pigeonhole. Or at least to remember (and forget right after the exam?) what we covered and discussed and studied in class.
This experience did shorten, a bit, the height of my soap box. When it came to other teachers’ work, perhaps previously I was too quick to downplay the importance of this kind of rote, old school need to examine what was inside students’ heads. When it came to my subject, as conflicted as I was about the format, I found myself saying, “Yes, they should know this. They should commit this to memory. They should learn this well enough to be able to answer it this way on a test.” Etc. That was an interesting experience for me. My passion for my subject had wanting them to take seriously information which I take seriously.
Don’t get me wrong. This was not a conversion experience by any stretch. I have talked to far too many students who have learned the game of cramming for and passing tests, only to forget almost instantly everything they so correctly answered for the exam. I was one of those students in subjects that didn’t interest me! I still firmly believe that our methods for assessing what students know and what skills they are capable of need a major upgrade over the systems we have employed for nearly a century. Asking students to synthesize and creatively apply or expand on what they know has to become dominant over assessment strategies that ask students simply to regurgitate what they have learned. I think my essay questions asked for a higher level of thinking, but several sections of my exam did not.
My problem right now is my newness. Assessment is an area in which walking this particular part of the talk requires more experience working with non-traditional assessment strategies. Lacking that experience (and time!) put me solidly in default mode for these midterms. Not a terrible thing, but not exactly where I think I should be either. I will report back at the end of the year when we have finals. My mom was right. There are times when heads need to be examined, I’m just not sure we have the best methods for conducting the examination. I am open to any and all suggestions below!