Education (3) Testing

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Aug 312017

Last week I gave all my classes a test – 10 classes in all. They were all written tests which I had to mark by hand. That’s a lot of work, but it’s part of the job. I can actually get my assistants to do the marking, but I’m not going to do that. I take my teaching seriously, and testing is very important. I hate marking, and my students hate tests. So why do I do it? I’ve hated taking tests all my life. Couldn’t I just find an easier way out? Tempting – but no.

At the start of all my undergraduate classes I used to give my students a little pep talk about my methods, especially about testing. I used to tell them that I hate testing and marking, but I don’t do it because I am a mean, nasty, horrible person who enjoys inflicting pain. I do it because it is intrinsically worthwhile – but only if done right. Some ways of testing are worse than useless, they are counterproductive; some ways are invaluable to the learning process. The trick is knowing which is which.

Schools (final exams) at Oxford are probably the most brutal exams I have ever sat for. I had to do 13 exams, each 3 hours long, over the course of a week (with Sunday off) – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. They tested everything I had studied for 3 years. Unlike the US system where you take a course and get tested at the end of it, at Oxford there are no tests per subject as you go along; just one set of final exams on everything at the very end of your undergraduate years. In your final term you have no tutorials or lectures. You simply look back over every essay you’ve written, and all of your notes, and cram as much in as possible, over a 5-week period, ready to regurgitate it all on paper over a grueling week, 3 hours at a pop. It didn’t help that we had to sit the exams dressed in black suit, white shirt with white bow tie, and academic gown (carrying a mortar board), but that was a minor inconvenience. The point was that for a brief moment in time you had the whole subject matter at your fingertips.

Having everything to hand is an important part of the intellectual process for me. By “to hand” and “at your fingertips” does not mean being able to look it up quickly via the internet or whatever. Everyone has that capacity. I mean having the information IN YOUR HEAD. That ability is vital to the thinking process. Testing in the right way encourages that style of thinking: get students to internalize as much as possible all at once, not so that they can simply regurgitate it, but so they can put it to practical use.

Some tests are the absolute opposite of this style, notably the standardized tests for entry to undergraduate and graduate programs of learning. The classic SAT and GRE exams used by the vast majority of universities in the US had 2 sections – verbal and mathematics – and now they have logical reasoning and essay sections. Supposedly the latter two make the tests more diagnostically useful. The fact is that repeated analysis of SAT scores has shown that the test cannot even accurately predict success or failure in the FIRST year of college, let alone after four years. They are worthless as predictors. Universities use them for only one reason: they are swamped with applications and so they need a simple measure to select among the applicants. They set parameters among the test scores and separate applicants into those they will accept and those they reject. Then they use other measures such as essays or interviews for the fine tuning. So, they start off with a worthless test that is not remotely related to the subject matter the student is applying to study, and which has no predictive power concerning success, and use that as their arbiter for who gets in and who doesn’t simply because it gives them a numerical score they can use to compare applicants. An actual test is too much work.

When I applied to Oxford I had to first sit five exams, three hours each, on the subject I was applying to study, and was marked by the relevant tutors at the college I was applying to. When I cleared that hurdle, I went to the college for an hour-long interview by the tutors. That is a reasonable test. When I applied to the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of North Carolina I was accepted on my written work – very commendable – but scholarships were assigned solely on GRE results. My scores were respectable, but not great, because I sat them without knowing what they were for. I was told to take them, and I did. I had never taken a multiple-choice test before in my life, and just did the best I could. I did not get a scholarship and spent 5 years studying at my own expense. Two of my classmates did get full scholarships, however, because they scored very well on the GRE. (They also got major funding from the National Science Foundation for their fieldwork. I had to take out a bank loan for mine.) The upshot? Neither of them finished the Ph.D. – one of them because he couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in writing !!! So much for standardized testing. Standardized testing tests only the ability to take standardized tests.

Standardized tests are popular because they can be machine graded and because they provide a simple numerical score that can be used to compare one student (or candidate) with another. The degree to which standardized tests provide meaningful results depends on the skill of the tester in many ways. First, there is the nature of the questions themselves. On the GRE I had to answer such questions as “ball is to bat as (something) is to (something)” with 5 choices of answers. How exactly will that question tell you whether I will be a good anthropologist or not? Second, if you look at the array of answers on a particular question you can decide whether your questions are too hard or too easy. If 100% of people being tested get the right answer the question is too easy; if the answers are spread more or less evenly over all the possible answers the people being tested are guessing, therefore the question is too hard. Professional test-writing companies spend a lot of time and money researching their testing methods. Your average university professor generally has no clue about this stuff when making up a multiple-choice test.

I used to use multiple-choice tests in very large lecture classes to test certain base level knowledge. I think this is fair as long as it’s not the only method of testing students. When I first trained as an emergency paramedic I had to take a grueling standardized test to certify. It tested basic knowledge in a host of medical areas. But it was only ONE part of a series of tests. I also had to show live examiners that I knew how to do a variety of things such as insert an IV line, intubate a patient, identify a fibrillating heart from an EKG and defibrillate, and splint a broken bone. You were allowed several attempts at each but if you failed any station you had to redo the test at a later date after more training. Furthermore, I had to work as a trainee under a supervisor on ambulances and take several 12-hour rotations in an emergency room, all of which were assessed and graded. So, the standardized test was part of a mix of tests. One hopes that the result is competent paramedics.

Bottom line: testing is an essential component of teaching/learning, but to be useful you have to know what you are doing, and too few teachers do.

Education (2)

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Education (2)
Aug 142017

Over and over, nowadays, I read complaints that education is not practical, and these voices are getting louder and louder. What exactly does that complaint actually mean? I am more than a little tired of hearing that subjects taught in school or university have no practical application. “Why must I learn the Pythagorean theorem, or Latin, or (fill in the blank)? I am never going to use them.” Sure. I can’t remember the last time that I needed to solve a simultaneous equation outside my academic writing (and I haven’t done it much within my writing either). The great mistake hidden within this question is the unquestioned assumption that the TOPIC must be relevant to some life goal for the study of the subject to be “important.” One variety of this great fallacy I see all the time in the media is the assumption that the point of a university education is to get a good job, and the road to that goal is to study a subject that will enhance your career prospects, whether it be business studies, computer science, nursing, or whatever. History, Literature, Sociology etc. are, therefore just a waste of time and money because they can’t lead to a good job (except, perhaps, in teaching). Science and mathematics are on the cusp (political science too), not because they are perceived as intrinsically useful, but because they can lead to training that will be marketable.

Vocational subjects are certainly necessary: I don’t want to go to a doctor who does not have a medical degree, obviously. But there is much, much more to education than vocational training. In my oh-so-humble opinion, education (at least my kind of education) is about learning how to think, and to learn how to think the subject matter is not relevant.

Let’s start with the obvious. In business these days, especially in the US, the supposed path to a “good” job (that is, pays a ton of money) is, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in business, and preferably a master’s. My first (not so obvious) question is: “How did the titans of 19th century industry succeed without any formal training in business studies (because such university programs did not exist)?” Answer: “They were smart, creative, imaginative people.” They didn’t get that way by studying pi charts or sales analysis in university. Actually, in many cases they had no formal education at all, but I’ll get to that later (probably in another post).

I will confess that teaching students how to think is a wretched enterprise – usually doomed to failure because it’s very poorly understood. But I don’t think we should give up because it is hard. That’s pretty weak kneed. The problem, as I see it, is not that teaching students how to think is a complicated endeavor, it’s that the vast majority of teachers don’t see this as their primary mission: they see communicating their subject matter as their main goal, whether it be social work, mathematics, Chinese language, or world religions. Generally, this is because they love their own subject matter (or are expert in it), and think that (at best) by simple enthusiasm they can convince their students of its intrinsic value. That ploy does not work. I can’t count the times I have taught an arcane subject with passion only to be met with bored stares. You really can’t make people care about what you care about by simple enthusiasm. Mostly you get laughed at or ignored.

Of course, it’s easy to get students to learn the rudiments of any subject by threats and intimidation – that is: “Learn this set of principles and be able to regurgitate them as needed or receive a failing grade.” Brilliant. This kind of mechanical “education” is worthless on any number of counts. Chief of these counts is that rote learning does nothing when it comes to applying the materials you have learnt. I taught English to dozens of university students in China who had, in theory, been learning the language for years, but what they had been learning (by rote) were the answers to standard grammar and vocabulary questions which they could reel off unerringly and score 100% on tests (and all had). But . . . they could not really speak English, even after years and years of such tests, because they had never encountered actual English speakers nor engaged in genuine conversations in English.

One simple conclusion you might draw from this basic example (which I could multiply many times) would be that less emphasis on theory and testing, and more on the application of principles taught would improve education. Maybe. But that’s not really what I am getting at. You’re not going to get much traction with that argument when it comes to conjugating Latin verbs or solving quadratic equations. There’s a deeper issue at stake – much deeper. For a great many years I taught subject matter without really thinking too much about why I was teaching it beyond the needs of the university and the department I was in. I argued, for example, for the need to make Fieldwork Methods a requirement for anthropology majors and the faculty readily concurred. The curriculum I put in place is still unusual for undergraduate anthropology programs in the United States in requiring a course in fieldwork. My reasoning was that anthropological theory was just a bunch of words without the experience of actually collecting and analyzing data for yourself – in the process seeing all the messy problems that data collection produces. I taught the Fieldwork Methods course under this aegis for 20 years, and I always began the course by explaining WHY it was required. Now we have the crux.

Maybe about 15 years ago I extended my ideas outward from Fieldwork Methods to EVERY class I taught. First lesson started with my statements as to why I was teaching the subject matter that I was teaching, and why I thought it was important. Every course had its own particular rationale, of course, but at heart there was one principle that was invariant: To help students to think critically. As I’ve already said, this is a thankless, sometimes futile, maybe impossible, task – but it was my goal – always. I stated it plainly so there was no mistaking my deepest intentions.

Let’s now take a step back. How many times in class did a teacher explain to you WHY you were learning a certain subject? If you ever questioned why you were learning a particular subject, what was the answer? The simple fact is that most teachers can’t give a coherent answer. I am sure that most teachers teach what they were good at in school, and can’t explain why they excelled at it or what excited them about the subject. For me, subject matter is utterly irrelevant. I’ve taught anthropology, history, sociology, chemistry, physics, biology, dance, music, anatomy, archeology, computer science, political economy, Biblical analysis, technical drawing . . . and on and on. I’ll teach whatever you want. I don’t care because it’s not the subject that’s important. I’m trying to spark creativity, imagination, and mental agility. I’ll do it using lab equipment, computers, novels, drawing boards or a piece of chalk (or nothing at all). Teaching in any other way is, to my mind, nothing but drudgery, and I’m not surprised if students rebel. Many of my students rebelled. Many just wanted to know what would be on the final test, and, if possible, wanted a neat list of all the answers to memorize so they could get 100%. With me they were plain out of luck. One student asked me on the first day what it would take to get an A in my class. He didn’t like my answer: “Be creative, imaginative, and intelligent. Impress me.” He didn’t.

To be continued . . .

Education (1)

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Education (1)
Aug 072017

This post is the first in a series on education which will, of course, sprawl all over the map.

In these days of vile politics preying on fear and bigotry amongst the general population I often hear the cry: “They need more education.” Really ???? That’s the solution? Somehow if people were “better” educated they’d stop succumbing to fear and make more reasoned judgments about who they elect, and what propositions they vote in favor of? It’s going to be hard for me to sum up all the flaws in that argument in a short post. In the simplest terms, “They need more education” is as sensible a statement as the phrase I see written on social media from one person to another all the time: “You should write a book.” Sure. Writing a book, finding a publisher, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies to eagerly awaiting readers is a breeze !!! Anyone who airily makes such a statement is clueless.

The hardest nut to crack here is to decide what exactly people mean by “education” followed by getting some grasp on why these people think it’s a good idea. Education comes in a host of flavors. Should we all learn more about certain subjects? Mathematics? History? Physics? Geography? Anthropology? Which ones? Which are most important and why? We can start with these questions before moving on to more challenging ones.

I can see a crying need in the West for the general public to have a better grasp of mathematics but I’m not certain at all how to achieve that goal. Simply taking more classes in mathematics is not going to help. Most of my college students had a blind spot when it comes to mathematics and their eyes would glaze over when I introduced even the most basic of mathematical equations in my classes. They were all required to achieve a certain level of mathematical competence on entry or in their first year, but it did no good. Simply taking classes is not the answer.

Knowing more than the most basic arithmetic is not only useful in such arenas as personal budgeting and planning, but also in more arcane areas such as statistics which forms the cornerstone of climate science, medicine, polling and the like. For example, when my wife was pregnant at age 36 doctors told us that she should have amniocentesis because the risk of Down syndrome in babies doubles for women over age 35. DOUBLES. Wow !!!! This is actually completely useless information unless you know the statistics that this statement is based on (and can interpret them). If the normal chances of having a Down syndrome baby are 1 in 10, then doubling would mean 2 in 10. That’s a pretty serious increase and one would be foolish not to take note. But if the normal chances are 1 in 10 million, then doubling would be 2 in 10 million. I certainly wouldn’t waste my time worrying about those odds. This reminds me of a favorite saying: “Lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid.” Some people will blow $100 per week on $1 lottery tickets because they have 100 times more chances of winning than buying just 1. True. But 1 versus 100 out of tens of millions are just not great odds. They fall back on the old chestnut, “Someone has to win.” Also true; but it’s not going to be you. The odds are heavily against you no matter how many you buy. If you take the same money weekly and invest it in indexed stocks you will be a guaranteed winner, but few seem willing to take that lack of risk. Education might help there, but I doubt it.

Many people continue smoking or eating fat-strewn diets etc. on the grounds that they had an uncle who smoked 2 packs a day and lived to be 90 (or whatever). What is their brilliant conclusion? This one case “proves” that statistics are useless. Rubbish. The statistics are not saying that EVERYONE who smokes will get cancer or heart disease. Many do not. But the CHANCES increase if you smoke. Are you willing to take the risk? I wouldn’t be surprised if these same people go to casinos even though it is a statistical CERTAINTY that they will lose more than they will win over time. Casinos get rich on this public ignorance. I will concede that some people like the atmosphere of casinos, and don’t mind losing because they like the thrill. Fair enough. I don’t.

I will also point out that you need to understand statistics to use them wisely. They have no end of problems in themselves (sampling error being the prime one), and their interpretation is not simple. For example, statistics can tell you about correlations but are silent about causation. I can tell you from statistics that 9 out of 10 New York businessmen wear black shoes to work. I can’t tell you WHY.

Enough about mathematics. What about other subjects? Being a professional anthropologist I could tout anthropology as an antidote to xenophobia, bigotry, racism etc., but I know very well that it isn’t. At my university it was a general education requirement that all students take a course from a list called “Other World Cultures” most of which were anthropology classes. It was great for my department’s numbers but I doubt that taking an anthropology course changed anyone’s behavior. Racism etc. are deeply held beliefs that are generally rooted in family and cultural experiences. Anthropologists and biologists have shown over and over that there is no biological basis for racial classifications. The concept of race is a cultural prejudice. Will pointing that out to students eradicate racism? Of course not.

Maybe you believe that getting people to think more clearly in general is the great panacea. Also a huge problem. Many people believe that thinking clearly means “thinking like me.” For starters, that’s the last thing I want as a teacher for many reasons. I want my students to think for themselves, not to think the way I think. About the only thing that ever made me angry as a university lecturer was having a student agree with me because he/she thought I would like it. I didn’t. I was more than happy to have students disagree with me, but . . . they had to support their arguments.

Here’s the meat of the problem. What is thinking clearly? Reasoning comes in a host of flavors too. Logical reasoning is only one and it is not always applicable. Nor is reasoning from self interest (the bane of classical economics). There is a good case to be made in economics and anthropology that self interest is NOT the normal driving force in culture, although it has its place. Pundits are frequently puzzled as to why people vote for candidates who are quite obviously going to work against their self interest. Are these voters blind or stupid or both? Not at all. For many people self interest is secondary to other values. Whether we find these other values important or relevant is a judgment call, not a matter of clinical logic. Candidate A’s policies will help me directly whereas Candidate B’s will help a number of other people, but not me directly. Must I inevitably, therefore, vote for Candidate A? By no means. If I think that the needs of the people that Candidate B will help are more important or urgent than mine it would make sense for me to vote for Candidate B. To vote for Candidate A out of self interest also requires that I trust Candidate A. Here intuition and experience may play as large a part as logic.

I’m going to have more to say on the subject of education if coming weeks, but this should serve as the appetizer.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:39 am