The Procedure: A Finals Week Post

I’ve been meaning to comment on this piece by Valerie Strauss since I read it late last week, but ironically enough, the end of the semester rush has kept me from it. In her discussion of what she calls “true learning” Strauss critiques “the procedure” of students cramming for exams to demonstrate their knowledge–and the rigor of their classes. She writes:

The Procedure: 1. Take notes during lectures, and hi-lite key sentences in the textbook. 2. Before a big test, load the notes and hi-lited passages into short-term memory. 3. Take the test. 4. Flush short-term memory and prepare for its re-use.

It’s no exaggeration to say that just about everybody in the country thinks The Procedure isn’t just acceptable but essential. It’s so broadly used, so familiar, so taken-for-granted, that many schools and universities go to great pains to accommodate it. Some even have rituals to enhance it.

The Procedure, of course, is called “cramming.” Do it well and it leads steadily up the academic ladder.

As my school approaches finals week, it’s an especially powerful message. It’s certainly a cliche at this point, but true: in the information age, the value of having students regurgitate facts they remember is about as useful as having them demonstrate the ability to solve math problems with an abacus.

In my school, some students have spent five class days preceding finals week reviewing in class for tests. There’s no new content being taught, no new connections being made, no meaningful work other than filling out massive “study guides” going on. For a whole week.

And what’s the best case outcome? That some students, better at memorization or more diligent about reviewing, will remember some content for the duration of an exam before forgetting it and moving on to the next test. At the end of the semester, we’ll have a tidy measurement of their remembered knowledge, but not their ability to meaningfully use it.

When I think back on the beginning of my career, I probably gave tests much like the ones Strauss decries in the piece. I wrote exams like that because that’s what my colleagues were doing–and, though this was not a conscious reason, because it privileged the kind of learning I was best at. I was the kind of college student who could stay up all night studying for a test, show up the next morning bleary-eyed, but full of specific knowledge, and pass objective tests. It’s even possible, that in that early Internet age, that was a critical skill, but now that information is so accessible, we should demand more of our students than recall.

Let me be clear: my position is not to be mistaken for one that endorses the idea that content isn’t important for education. Of course, we need to provide students with rich, complex content every day, but instead of asking them to remember minutiae from that content, we need to be asking them to synthesize, analyze and evaluate it on our exams and other assessments.

It’s time for a new “procedure” on final exams: measuring what students can do with knowledge, not just that they possess it.