Pop Quiz: How useful are tests, anyway?
As some of you may or may not be aware, most PhD students outside the discipline of Education are never required to take any classes in paedagogy in order to “learn” how to teach at the university level, or indeed at any other. Rather, it’s kind of magically expected that after so many years on the receiving end of classroom instruction in one’s discipline, planning, balancing, and executing a course that covers the same material should somehow just come naturally. Although the most fortunate students are sometimes afforded the experience of a teaching assistantship under a gifted instructor, by and large the first classroom teaching experience is a bit of a trial by fire for the newly-minted teacher.
Universities and their constituent departments have developed a few strategies to try to deal with this glaring weakness in the system. Many institutions, such as my own, offer optional (or even mandatory) teacher training seminars to graduate students and first-time adjuncts. It is also becoming standard in my discipline for search committees to ask job applicants for a sample syllabus or even a video of the applicant teaching a class well before the traditional classroom teaching demo in the final stages of the interview. To compensate for this aspect of the job market, my own programme has incorporated course design into the comprehensive exams we must pass to reach ABD status. Students are expected to design an upper-level undergraduate course related to their specialisation or dissertation topic, and then orally defend the syllabus in front of a panel of faculty members.
Curiously, this process does not involve actually teaching any material to undergraduates.*
The glaring weaknesses of this system of, er, “teacher training” should be pretty evident, but while possible reforms to it are a perennial topic of conversation, paedagogical training generally seems to end up at the very bottom of the priority list when it comes to actually making changes. This is unfortunate, since failing to train students in evidence-based instructional methods essentially perpetuates an educational “model” that consists of little more than a giant appeal to tradition with a healthy helping of confirmation bias.
Let me illustrate with an anecdote.
I’ve never really cared for tests as a paedagogical tool, though I do grudgingly accept their necessity in certain situations where other forms of evaluation are impractical. In fact, I often get the sense that tests are a distraction from actual learning and mastery, since they shift the student’s primary goal away from learning itself and toward passing the test. In my student days I did not find this distinction terribly problematic, but only because I was never particularly concerned with grades: I learned the material that interested me, and rarely if ever took extra steps to prepare for tests (sometimes with detrimental results). As a teacher, though, tests drive me crazy. Because so many students are so terribly concerned with their grades, entire class sessions are lost to exam protocols, reviews, and other minutia that distract from the business of learning.
So I decided, when designing my sample course, to evaluate the students based only on a number of writing assignments and a final paper. That’s right, no tests! Of course, when I brought the syllabus in for oral defence, I was immediately confronted with the received wisdom.
Them: Why don’t you have any tests?
Me: I don’t think they are as useful a gauge of students’ mastery as writing assignments.
Them: But without tests, what motivates them to learn?
Me: Well, they still have to learn the material for the writing assignments. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to complete them successfully.
Them: I think you really need tests, or students won’t be motivated to learn. I always test my students to make sure they learn certain key concepts, and even then some of them always fail.
Me: Wait, doesn’t that show that the test doesn’t actually motivate everyone?
What do you think of tests? In what situations are they useful paedagogical tools? If you received teacher training, how was testing addressed?
The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.
*In my specialization, anyway. Other programmes in our department do require students to teach a class as part of these exams. We also have an informal system of classroom observation and feedback for graduate students who are lucky enough to be assigned courses to teach.