One of the most unfortunate feelings I experienced in my undergraduate courses was the feeling of disappointment, and really outright betrayal, when something that I had learned for an exam never actually appeared on that exam. “Well, dammit, why did I waste my time learning it if I wasn’t going to be tested on it?!” I would think to myself. I felt as though the teacher had tricked me into learning something and taking up valuable space in my already crowded head.
Of course, this is the opposite of what learning is all about. Learning should not be valuable only if it is necessary to some immediate goal, but undergraduate Jackson didn’t see it that way, not when he had to cram for three exams in one week (or even one day, at times). The assessment system as the majority of students have experienced it is broken and backwards, emphasizing rote memorization for the purposes of getting a good grade rather than actual learning.
Of course, this isn’t a secret; most educators will readily admit that the way that student learning is assessed is fundamentally flawed, or at the least in serious need of retooling. Yet, changing the grading system that is now fundamental to US education is a monumental task and one that requires great acts of bravery and defiance. That may sound dramatic, but think about it from the point of view of, well, me!
I am going to complete my PhD program soon, and am beginning the process of applying to institutes of higher education, with the goal of teaching as my main focus. In crafting my teaching philosophy, a large part of me wants to passionately espouse how I am going to reinvent learning and integrate all these newfangled active learning techniques while doing away with categorical grading. However, unless I am applying to an institution that does not use standard grades, I will be required to supply a letter grade for each student, and, more than likely, have a three exam a semester normative syllabus, especially if I teach introductory biology.
I want to get a job, more than I want to be a champion of change. I need to provide for my family and heralding a massive upheaval of the current education system is not likely to help. And, when I do hopefully get that job, I will want to get tenure, and not cause waves by teaching my introductory classes differently than the other sections. So, what do we do, as new teachers do we risk derailing our careers, or not even getting a career in the first place, by championing for change? Do we only apply to institutions like Warren Wilson that already “get it,” thereby changing nothing? Or do we wait patiently until we have our valuable tenure and then begin implementing the changes that we desire, that is if we have not already become mired in the standard grading system and too disimpassioned to change?
I only bring these questions up because I think they are important to consider. Of course we can champion change in smaller, bite-sized amounts that hiring committees will see as appropriately progressive, and departments will not balk at. My passion may scream out “To Hell with anyone who stands in my way! We need to change the entire system NOW!” but change, especially on an individual teacher basis, needs to be both strategic and iterative. Instead of giving exams, for instance, have students write review papers on a topic of their choosing (within the greater subject) and have their peers review those papers for quality and accuracy. The student then may make changes based on their peer review or not (though have them defend their decisions in a written statement) before presenting their paper to the class. In this way, you may assess whether concepts are being sufficiently learned while mimicking the real world of scientific discussion. There are no standardized exams in the real world, and you do not get a grade for each paper you write or talk you give. That being said, it may be a good idea to give weekly quizzes to ensure that the basic, necessary factoids are sinking in, but make them pass/fail.
As I apply for positions, I must keep in mind that I can make change, and stand up for what I believe, without doing away with everything standard at once. As future educators, it is our duty and responsibility to improve how we teach, and how students are assessed. There will undoubtedly be pushback from fellow faculty, the administration, students, and even parents, but we must be firm in our convictions and loyal to the success of our students.