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Test systems and learning

At the University of California Santa Cruz where I’m currently an exchange student I’ve encountered one aspect of the organization of university life that has been standing out to me as being remarkably far from my conception of what higher-level education entails: The way the grading and test system for some undergraduate classes is designed in an extremely rigid, inflexible and disciplinary fashion. Being confronted with this, I think it’s interesting and important to try to think about which attitudes towards learning are encouraged and which understandings of knowledge are performed in these systems. Which ways of being a student does the system enable and encourage me to pursue?

This is the way one upper division (which means the students have usually been to university/college for between two to four years) class was designed:

The final letter grade which is the one that will figure on the student’s transcript is generally translated from fairly meticulous 100-grade scale on which you during the course accumulated points. An array of different activities gave us these points. Each week we had 4-8 reading questions typically asking us to describe a certain concept from a text and compare it to something else. Each question had to be roughly a paragraph. All answers for these questions had to be uploaded on a webpage before a certain time in order to elicit points. It didn’t matter that much, we were told, whether the answers were actually good or correct as long as they were there and somehow tried to engage with the question. In the middle as well as by the end of the term we had two-pillar exams consisting of an assigned take home-essay and an in-class quiz. The midterm essay had two questions to choose from. An example of the form of one of them is:

“What is the relationship between concept 1 and concept 2? Discuss this through Author A, B and C (including citations), and give 2 examples each from Author D and E (with citations) to support your argument.”

The answer to this question had to be in three double-spaced pages. We were provided the rubric which the teaching assistant were to use to grade our papers, detailing how every inclusion of a requested article gave us a couple of points while a coherent argument gave a couple of extra points too. The final exam, in five pages, was a veritable puzzle and too complicated to explain here, but included three different quite broad ranging questions that all had to be answered and six lists of different texts from the course with us having to use one text from each list once, with all lists except one being tied to specific questions. The in-class quizzes had the form of a list of sentences with a blank spot in them in which we had to insert a concept from a list from the top of the page and write a small justification beneath it.

The design of a course can be thought of as an apparatus that works to create and/or sustain a certain conception of what knowledge and learning is. The particular class in which I experienced the test system described above was in addition also characterized by a fairly large reading amount, which at least for me (admittedly not a fast reader, but from talking to other students my impression was that many of those experienced the same) meant that it wasn’t possible to actually thoroughly read all pages of all the assigned texts, at least not without deprioritizing other classes simultaneously.

Here are some thoughts on what the design of the course in my experience did:

The actual practice of reading changed. The reading questions pointed out in advance what one should look for in the text, which meant that interpretation to some extend got uniformed across the class. Overall, Everyone reads after the same. My own experience was also that, due to the busyness I tended in a higher and higher degree to read with a purpose of getting a very superficial understanding of a given text in order to be able to answer the reading questions as fast as possible. This also strengthened a tendency to understand new texts through concepts and patterns that I already was acquainted with before starting to read the text (usually actually even before starting the course), thus reading for sameness rather than difference, the identic rather than the non-identic. I noticed that I started to disregard the types of analyses that were more ambiguous, complex or multifaceted, something I otherwise tend think of as important to pursue, in favor of the articles that to a higher degree allowed themselves to be reduced to what was entailed in an abstract or a conclusion.

The in-class multiple choice tests gives the impression that social scientific concepts are unambiguous and that they to a large extend can have a fixed meaning outside of a larger textual context. The fact that these quizzes count as an exam suggests that knowledge is primarily about memory, that being able to remember the (very simplified version of) meanings of concepts is an end in itself rather than doing something with the concepts. The reading questions and the prompts for the essays did in their formulation sometimes allow an approach that was a little bit more analytical explorative, but the extremely small amount of space and especially time for each of those meant that it in practice was very unlikely to get very far with them, and if you did end up spending too much time thinking about one of the questions and actually did an effort to answer it in an interesting way you’d have lost the time needed to answer the other ones and would end up getting lesser points in the end.

Thus in contrast to classes with exams based primarily on small research-like projects or more individually defined essays the test-design of this class had practically no mechanism to reward creativity or originality. This counters curiosity and creates a sense that more discoverous, groping reading/investigation is an ineffective way to spend ones time as a student. It also gives very little room to develop an individual flow of motivation and working style. I guess it that it as a contrast to neo-liberal demands of constantly being entrepreneurial selves could be argued to be somehow liberating to be allowed to feel less personally engaged. It can be stressful always to be creative and make decisions; this course had such a narrow scope for a creativity that it doesn’t matter anyway. One could be allowed to feel a bit of comfort in the oldschool experience of allowing oneself to be distant and despising of an inhumane and alienating system and a bit of joy in the hacking-like challenge of trying to formally meet the demands of the system with as little effort as possible. But then on the other hand it’d be hard to seriously argue that being able to accommodate so clearly defined goals could ever be a viable way of actually practicing social science. Thus the kind of skill and the kind of work the test-system encourages doesn’t point very far beyond being able to do well in this particular course. We are approaching something almost tautological: The primary goal of learning in the course becomes to be able to get a good grade in the course.

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