Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Testing the Creative Abilities of Our Students, And Our Own Expectations

During my entire student life, I hated to memorize, and did everything that I could to avoid memorizing. For some teachers and professors it was simply unavoidable. For these courses I would memorize (and of course forget everything shortly after the exam), but I always thought that these teachers and professors were feeble-minded failures.

Now that I'm a professor, I do what I can to teach concepts rather than lists of facts, and I try to create exam questions that reward holistic understanding and punish rote memorization.

As most of us know, it's nearly impossible to have any kind of accurate idea what most students actually think of us, but nevertheless I've received some fragmentary feedback indicating that I may have achieved my goal: one student commenting, "For your exams I actually have to understand the material."

This semester I thought that I would try to go a bit further, and make available what I thought was a 'creative' outlet, and a way to relate principles from class to their everyday lives. I wanted everyone to organize themselves into groups, and have each person present the results from some informal research: read about the effect of drugs in Rolling Stone, or interview a friend or relative who suffers from some mental disorder, or is trying to recover from brain injury suffered in a car wreck. Because I envisioned this assignment as creative, I didn't want to give much in the way of guidelines, but stressed again and again that I wanted a story. I wanted to hear what they thought was interesting, I wanted them to take the concepts from class out for a spin.

What I got was mostly a recitation of lists of facts. I have to admit that only three or four presentations (out of about 120 in three classes) were what I'd envisioned. Were my expectations too high? Did I fail to clearly convey my expectations, or are my students simply unequipped to complete a creative assignment?