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Tests, Tests, Tests

Last week I had my first class with the very large Medieval Art course, with thirty students. I know some who might come across this blog would scoff at my calling this a "very large" class, but at my small, liberal arts college, a class of 30 is the exception and not the rule. In fact, it is hard to find rooms that hold this many students. In fact, that may be a future post: figuring out the configuration of furniture to support student engagement in this classroom, one of the only ones for a large class and large-screen image projection.

After our first class meeting, I wanted to touch base with one of the football players I am mentoring. I know him pretty well. He was in my class in fall of 2016 when I first met him. He's a starter on the team, and I've met his parents. I wanted to talk to him about his grades last semester, which were not stellar. He shared with me that he knows his grades aren't good, he does know he has got to buckle down, but he also lamented that nearly all of his classes require him to take tests. And then he bombs them. And then it's over - on to new material.

This morning I reached the final chapter in Cathy N. Davidson's The New Education, a book I *highly* recommend. This was the paragraph that made me think of the student above and his frustrations:

"High-stakes end-of-semester summative, standardized testing is broken, and so we must design challenges that help students to build on what they know and learn from what they don't, growing stronger from each test instead of feeling defeated by an exam score that cannot capture growth or change."

He said, "I wish classes had grading opportunities like you do. " I have started to eschew exams and tests. In their place I have critical analysis papers, visual analysis writing assignments, creative assignments where they must apply information to a new context, role-playing game speeches and reflections, blog posts. And in all of it, art is at the center of the inquiries, as well as contextual historical information that is at the heart of my discipline of art history.

I urge everyone who cares one whit about higher education, or are in it, to read Cathy N. Davidson's book. We need a new higher education system to help our students to prepare for lives in a  ever more complicated world.

And if you still give exams, what do you think of a student who is demoralized with poor performance and yet can't seem to master it? Should they just be "out"? Tough love? I can't quite embrace a philosophy that at the core is about gate keeping - keep the barbarians from storming the city. What "city" are we trying to protect? Why would we want to keep some students out?

I am truly puzzled by professors who want to show students the door. That is just not my way.


5 thoughts on “Tests, Tests, Tests

  1. Steven Greenlaw

    The status quo is easier than the alternative Cathy Davidson and you propose. So academics create myths about students who just can't hack it. Instead of thinking deeply and creatively about how to better reach those students.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I so agree (sorry for the late reply here). Student demographics shift and change, and while I think we should always have high expectations of students, we should also meet them where they are. And it was a pleasure meeting you in January at AACU!!

  2. Ashton L

    Some of the most brilliant people I know struggle with exams - particularly high-stake exams. Many of them struggle not because they are not hard workers, and not because they don't know the material, but because through the anxiety that a test work 25% of one's grade, they cannot recall what they have spent weeks learning. All they think about during the test is "if I get this wrong, I might fail this class."

    Transitioning to a method that better challenges critical thinking and analysis as these essay and creative assignments do, better equip graduates in new jobs, as they have for me.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Ashton!!! So great to hear from you! I wonder how you found my little ole blog? Thank you for leaving this comment, and I agree so much. I am hearing from so many students about how they wish there were more creative assignments. Since you note that those types of assignments have helped you now that you are in a career (yay!), can you tell me more precisely what it is that has helped you?

      1. Ashton L

        I love reading your blogs!! They pop up on my linkedin, and I stop to read them every time!

        Critical thinking and creative problem solving (developed through writing creative essays and "figure out why this is" assignments) are truly invaluable skills to have in a professional environment. When a crisis arises, you have to be able to really look at the cause and develop a solution rather than regurgitate a paragraph you read in some book once. That is what this style of learning really supplied me with. As a recruiter, I can't just check a few boxes and suddenly I have the perfect employee hired. And spouting out ideas straight from a textbook is not a way to stay ahead in any industry, but especially for the technology world that I currently recruit for.

        I think some of the most helpful work I have done in some of your classes have been the various come up with a solution and support your answer assignments (the designing a cathedral assignment; based on x artworks, what society is this; but these artworks in order from oldest to newest; and the creative essays) because they really make you think and develop the ideas you will need outside of a controlled classroom setting.


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