Monday, April 18, 2016

Dr. Faulkner: The Nightmare

When Albert Einstein died in 1955 he left behind more than 30,000 documents.  Princeton University is in the process of digitizing these documents and making them available online. One of those papers first published in December, 1917 is titled “The Nightmare.”  What could give the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics nightmares?

What Einstein referred to was the traditional, secondary school, end of term final exam.  In that time and system the final exam lasted five or six days, consisted of both written and oral tests, and covered all major subjects.  It was often the single source upon which students were evaluated.
In the article Einstein criticizes the tests as negative because of the fear associated with the tests and because of the effect of lowering the standard of teaching.  He states, “I will nevertheless mention the well-known fact that many men in the most varied professions have been plagued into their later years by nightmares whose origins trace back to the final secondary school exam.”  Some of our students might agree that they have been scarred for life by a comprehensive final exam.  My own nightmares about finals usually revolved around over-sleeping and missing the exam. 

I have witnessed something akin to this when Wanda and I visited China.  We were there during the week of the national exam given to all high school seniors.  The result of this one exam determined if the student would go on to a university or a trade school or to a job.  This was high stakes testing and there was no second chance.  We were told that parents would secure hotel rooms as close as possible to the testing sites so their students could get as much extra sleep as possible on exam day.

As to the lowering of the standard of teaching, Einstein felt that the final exam placed the emphasis on memorization and “shallow drills” instead of substantial, in depth learning.

All this started me thinking about the many assessments I have taken and even more so about those I’ve administered to students during my teaching career.

·         How much did my exams reflect understanding and how much was about factual memorization?
·         How many questions accurately gauged the students understanding of the material?
·         Were my exams too high stakes?
·         Did I assess for formative reasons or only summative?
·         Which question were a reflection of the student’s knowledge and understanding and which were a reflection of my poor performance as a teacher?
·         How much was authentic for the future they faced and how much was mundane and trivial?
·         How many questions could I connect directly to a stated learning outcome?  (Yeah for institutional effectiveness!)

Perhaps it would be wise for all of us in education to ask and honestly answer these and other related questions so we are doing more than giving our students nightmares.

-Dr. Jerry Faulkner

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