I recently re-read a marvelous 4-page essay that uses metaphors to explain why students and professors have such different expectations of student learning. The essay is Just Scoring Points by Walter R. Tschinkel from The Chronicle Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education April 13, 2007.
He first presents the metaphor that seems to fit what politicians believe when they require lots of testing to standards: that of pouring knowledge into empty vessels. Both students and professors reject this metaphor as inappropriate.
Next he presents another cliché: constructing a building by laying a foundation, then adding one brick after another, gradually layering on knowledge to form a coherent whole. Students were generally happy with this metaphor (as are many teachers, given its ubiquity), but Tschinkel points out that student behavior does not fit this metaphor at all. If students really were building an edifice of knowledge, they would retain more from exam to exam and from course to course. One doesn’t build a building by letting half the bricks evaporate every 6 months.
Instead, Tschinkel proposes that student behavior is better explained with a sports metaphor. The exams correspond to important games. Students spend a lot of effort figuring out how to win the game and maximize their scores, but once the game is over, nothing is left but the score. At the end of their education, all they have is the GPA: their cumulative score from several seasons. Any knowledge or skills they retain from their education is purely incidental.
Tschinkel points out that this behavior is an adaptive response to the way they are graded and rewarded for being in school. Their funding continues as long as they pass enough exams, whether or not they retain anything from their education. He suggests that lectures, multiple-choice exams, and curricula consisting of essentially independent courses all contribute to the problem.
Some of his solutions are (as he recognizes) unlikely to happen, because of the price. Non-lecture instruction is generally much more expensive than lectures, as are hand-graded essays rather than machine-scored multiple-choice tests. More integrated curricula are certainly possible. Even now, some programs (especially engineering ones) have much more interlocked courses than most programs, so that students who do not retain sufficient material from one course to the next fail (engineering professors are also much more willing to fail students who don’t know required material than professors in other fields are).
Going back to a recurring theme on this blog, what does Tshinkel’s metaphor suggest about standards-based grading (SBG) and sustained performance? The SBG approach to grading seems to be based on the fill-a-bucket model, with many buckets to fill, but the assumption that once filled they stay that way. There is nothing inherent in SBG that moves students away from gathering points rather than knowledge: they just have to gather the points in many different buckets. They can concentrate on one bucket at a time, then forget it to move on to the next. Since SBG is based on students demonstrating mastery once or twice, but not at particular times, it does not quite fit with the “game” metaphor, though. From a sports metaphor, it is more like recording your personal best, but not necessarily retaining the ability to duplicate the feat.
The question remains open: how do we get students to value the knowledge and skills they acquire in classes enough to retain them for future use?