What Do You Really Know?

As you may already have guessed, I think that the education system as it stands is rubbish. Terrible. And it is for a lack of neither good teachers nor inherent student enthusiasm. I contend that it is stilted by the eternal desire from governments (and individuals, for that matter) at all levels to measure progress.

Now, I have nothing against measuring things.  In fact, part of this blog is about measuring my own progress – but it’s in a very qualitative way.  I don’t know how many words or tunes or facts I know – I don’t care, and it’s not important.  The knowledge itself is what’s important.

As a physicist, it’s always been pretty obvious to me that there are some things that you just can’t do – there are a whole host of physical systems too difficult to describe in a way that is both accurate and simple. Vastly complicated computer programs need to be devised to describe, for example, the flow of real water in a real river. This should come as no surprise, since we live in an inherently complicated world, and the reason students only study simple systems at school is because – well – they’re simple, and therefore easy to understand.

Something that is vastly more complicated and less well understood than the ultimately describable physical world however is the human brain. Psychologists are, to all intents and purposes, clueless about what goes on in the human mind – how is information encoded in the brain? We may have an idea of where information is stored, but as for anything more complicated, we know nothing.

I think that it’s therefore not unreasonable to suggest that it’s not really possible to accurately and simply grade what any given person really knows through the medium of a one-off written exam – and there are all kinds of problems that arise from written papers:

  1. The results of a paper can be drastically changed by practising how to pass exams.  Studies have shown that going through past-papers increases exam performance significantly.
  2. The one-off nature of exams encourages one-off study bingeing, followed by study cold-turkey.  Finished an exam? Great. Now you can forget whatever you just learnt.  Sure, all teachers will tell you to pace out your learning, but very few people I’ve come into contact with actually have.  This problem can be compounded by universities explicitly encouraging students to waste time partying as much as possible (in the UK anyway – don’t know about other countries).
  3. If you fall behind with studying, for whatever reason (anyone got a student job?), it’s that much harder to catch up again in time for the final exams. Exam papers are designed to be taken at specific times each year – fail (for example, because of illness or running out of money), and you might, might just be able to retake it half a year later. Demotivating, to say the least.
  4. Things that are easy to measure are not necessarily interesting.  I learnt how a fridge works whilst studying Thermodynamics recently – that was interesting.  How solar panels work?  Interesting.  These things have never been examined at my university though, whereas endless abstract mathematical calculations and elegant physical theories have.
  5. Governments have an incentive to show their voters what a great job they’re doing with their country’s education system – which means they have an incentive to make exams easier each year as a quick way of showing apparent improvement.

The favoured antidote is coursework – which is little better, since it’s far too easy to cheat on. Last time I checked, there were companies offering paid-for degree essays (complete with a guarantee that the misdeed would go unnoticed). It seemed to be typical at my school for parents to chip-in or do outright GCSE and A-level coursework of their offsring – to the detriment of the more honest students. Another method of measuring progress that’s inherently flawed.

I propose therefore a radically different system, taking a degree-level course as an example. Rather than having exams at set times, you can take them whenever you want – when you feel you really, really understand the laws of thermodynamics and their implications and applications, then you can go show the relevant professor what you know, in an oral examination.  In fact, scrap the term “exam” – you’re just going to go and discuss some physics with him, once a week if you like.  The line between progress measurement and tutorial would be blurred – assessment becomes a learning tool, and vice versa.  The important thing, of course, is that your professor would know how much you know, without the need for an exam – and as such, he’ll also have a good idea of how to keep you personally interested over the course of time.

There would be no grade classification (as in modern medicine courses) – you either know your stuff, or you don’t.  This would discourage study-bingeing, and let students work at their own pace (such that they could also learn things outside of their subject properly – language anyone?); it would also eliminate problems like pre-exam stress and illness, and would even let students earn enough to support themselves financially without damaging their degree.

In the case of a maths based subject, your professor might ask you to go through a proof, calculation or derivation on the board, variants of which the student would have meticulously practiced beforehand.  Arts subjects (e.g. English) could continue to be essay-based – but under frequent consultation with a professor (thereby reducing plagiarism opportunities, since the evolution of the essay could be seen). Explaining the content of an original essay verbally would be much easier than expatiating on one that had been fraudulently produced.

Note that this alternative system is not significantly more time-intensive than the current system; someone still has to mark and double-mark an exam script, then add up the marks, then collate them… not a good use of time, methinks, especially since it’s at the expense of personal tuition.  Note also that it doesn’t require dispensing with targets and milestones; it merely makes more of them that are smaller.  We get an education/examination system built around bitesize, manageable chunks – and anyone who uses an SRS will know that that’s exactly the best way of approaching learning.

Now, there are some obvious problems here, mostly to do with how much time academic staff can reasonably spend on individual tuition sessions as described above.  And I’m also aware I’m overgeneralising too – I don’t hate easy-to-measure things completely, I just think they’re usually less interesting than more practical applications.  But this is an entire education system we’re overhauling, a cornerstone of modern society!  I think there are ways of making it workable – to be covered soon…

P.S. I’m also aware that it is possible to succeed and do really well and learn under the current exam system, but only if you work hard at the right times.  Even then, it’s tempting to slack off once the pressure’s off, with the result of forgetting what you’ve learned.  Waste.  Of.  Time.

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One thought on “What Do You Really Know?

  1. Pingback: Teaching and Tutoring « thousand mile journey

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