Tag Archives: Testing

My “Tirade Against Exams”

I try to keep an eye on how people get to this blog, using WordPress and Google tools, and I especially take note of old posts that are still getting traffic.

Apparently the most popular of my old posts is one I wrote almost two years ago about university exams.

I’ve edited the post a little, and if you didn’t read it yet, you might want to check it out:

A Tirade Against Exams


So why are exams a bad idea when you want to check whether a bunch of science undergrads understood what you taught them? Well, one part of the problem should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of science:exams are not very good experiments. There is no way to control for interference of irrelevant, extraneous factors. When scientists conduct a study, in any field and with any methodology, they seek to control for irrelevant interferences. For example, when psychologists test hand-eye coordination, they’ll do something like only taking right-handed people with healthy hands and eyes, in order to make sure that the results aren’t skewed by irrelevant differences between individuals.

You can’t do anything like that in exams.

Continue reading »

I’ve also changed the blogs settings so that comments are now open on old posts, too (they used to close automatically after two months). Feel free to rekindle the discussion on the Tirade, or on any other old post.

Lenz on Learning: “What grades are good for”

I bumped into an amusing post on an inactive blog. In five quick, tongue-in-cheek points, Evan Lenz explains what grading teaches you:

2. An abdication of responsibility

Grading encourages you to abdicate all responsibility for evaluating your own learning. That’s somebody else’s job. Other people know better about not only what you should be learning but how well you are learning it. This is their game, and it’s your job to play it. Why you would want to learn something, what you would apply it to, what meaning or importance it has for you, what enjoyment you get from it—these are completely irrelevant to your grade. So why even pay attention to these considerations? They are a waste of time. They’re not going to help you pass that next test.

Read the rest over at Lenz on Learning.

Peter Gray on Video Games

Peter Gray, my favorite education blogger, has recently written two posts I can highly recommend:

As always, Peter does a great job of supporting his point with research, and writing some sobering posts about video games is a much-needed service for democratic schools, as well as for parents everywhere. It’s also nice to see how much his well-founded and academic post matches what I wrote about game addiction two years ago based only on anecdotal evidence.

Semi-electives: a university paradox

For the BA degree in linguistics, me and my classmates are required to choose some courses from outside of the core linguistics curriculum. This is, in theory, a good thing – it gives undergraduate students a chance to see what’s going on in other departments, and particularly gets us acquainted with some fields related to our own. However, these semi-electives are simply the introductory modules that students in other programs take in their first semesters; this can cause a lot of frustration.

Over the past days, I spent several frustrating hours doing homework in such a course. I remember seeing what must have been the same frustration in students from outside of linguistics in the introductory courses I’ve taken and the one in which I tutored. I think this frustration is an indirect result of the Bologna Process, which creates a basis on which courses from different departments, universities, and countries, across Europe, are evaluated for accreditation. The problem, I think, is that it’s very hard to evaluate a course and the effort that goes into it outside of context. Continue reading Semi-electives: a university paradox

A rant about degree requirements

University of Leipzig, in 2009 partly occupied...
Image via Wikipedia

Lately I’ve been having a very hard time accepting the structure of the university program I am in. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I certainly have not been happy with the requirements this semester.

Over the four semesters I completed so far, I mostly took courses in linguistics. They were not all exactly my cup of tea (only about half of them) and I don’t have to repeat what I think about being tested at the end of every semester, but for the most part I was happy to jump through the hoops, knowing it was progressing my understanding of the discipline and domain of research that I had chosen. My fascination with linguistics and language grew over time as I learned more, understood more, and appreciated new ways of approaching the subject matter. I could accept the expectation that all of us learn a little of all of it, even the approaches we are not interested in pursuing.

However, the way this BA program is designed is a little strange. After the 4th semester, there are no linguistics courses anymore. For the last year of our studies — the year in which we are expected to write our BA thesis in linguistics, mind you — the plan is to take courses from the three different lists of more-or-less elective courses. In total, the program requires 180 ECTS credits throughout the six semesters of study, corresponding to the unrealistic total of 900 hours of class and self-study time per semester. (Hardly anyone at the university, student or instructor, takes this requirement seriously. It seems like something the Bologna process dictates and the universities do their best to fulfill, mostly on paper.)

90 credits — half of the program — are to be obtained in linguistics courses, including 10 credits for the thesis. The other half is composed of:

  • 30 credits: courses you get by lottery (from your first few choices) from other departments, university-wide, usually limited to introductory offerings
  • 30 credits worth of courses from an “obligatory electives” list, which lets you choose from exactly 70 credits worth of courses from other departments — introductory computer science (20), inter-cultural communication for Russian (10), philosophy of language (10), the languages of Africa (10), the system and history of German (10), or basic Hausa (10)
  • 30 credits worth of “key qualifications” courses, being a strange mixed bag of courses offered by different parts of the university on a basis which is not quite interdisciplinary as much as it is simply unrelated to any of the disciplines of those who might take the courses. Luckily, 10 of these credits have to be taken in a language course and the other 20 can be semi-officially replaced by language courses.

I have a feeling this is a case of good intentions gone amiss. There is apparently a social norm of going straight from highschool into university if you were in the academic “gymnasium” highschool system — which you are selected for at the age of 10. As a result, most beginning students have no clue what they’re getting into. So it’s probably doing many students a favor to force them to get a taste of other disciplines before giving them a degree, and indeed the majority changes to another program, or quits, by the second year of studies. But perhaps it’s just cruel, seeing as those of us without wealthy parents have two semesters of grace in which to switch majors, after which financial aid is no longer available.

But I digress. The point is that the structure of this program — not the content — is crushing my interest and desire to complete it. I can’t emphasize enough how this is not a matter of content. I feel like those 80 credits worth of linguistics courses both gave me an excellent, broad understanding of the discipline (and sub-disciplines) of linguistics, as well as giving me a chance to develop real interest in research.

The problem is that the structure of the program makes it entirely impractical to continue pursuing that interest. It’s not just that I have to take some other courses. It’s that a student like me, who is engaged in extra-curricular activity and dependent on financial support, can’t realistically do much besides the required work.

Right now I feel trapped. I am working as a tutor in the introduction to linguistics, and as a research assistant in a language documentation project. I decided to take these jobs both in order to stay involved in linguistics and to work towards more financial independence. I’m very glad I made that choice, and I think it is entirely in line with what engaged and serious students are supposed to do (faculty seems to agree entirely). Yet with all of the time and effort my work requires, I’m struggling to keep up with the computer science coursework, and just desperate to devote more time to reading linguistics literature and perhaps work on some research of my own. (With theoretical grammar as my primary interest, research is thankfully something I can do without any special equipment.)

It makes me furious that in order to receive my BA in linguistics, I am expected to now more or less put my interest in linguistics aside and focus on hoop-jumping.

A note

As some of you may know, as of last Thursday I’m taking time off from my work on EUDEC Council, until the end of 2010. This makes some much-needed room in my schedule for dealing with these requirements. Hopefully it will also give me more time to blog.

I do not expect to make a habit of personal, emotional posts like this one, lacking a clear and general point. It’s just something I had to write about today. At any rate, comments are open and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on all of this.

NYT on Study Habits: three comments

This New York Times article came to my attention via Facebook (Thanks, H.B.!):

Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

By Benedit Carey

Full article on NYTimes.com

As you can imagine, I read the whole thing on the spot. I fully recommend the entire article, and it’s not long.

I’d like to comment on a few things in the article. I’ll quote them in the order they appear:

Science and the school system

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, […] In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.


[…] many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

These paragraphs (emphasis mine) show a recurring theme of the article: the school system has not been learning from science. This is, indeed, “striking and disturbing”. But I can’t say I’m surprised. In my encounters with “education sciences” in Germany, I have to say I did not get the impression that they are very scientific. As my friend Sören Kirchner of tologo often remarks, they seem to be more in the business of reinforcing a philosophy than that of empirical science. Because “education sciences” are wedded to the traditional school system (in Germany at least, the educational sciences faculties are where accredited teacher training takes place) they typically seem rather unmotivated to produce true criticism of the beliefs that drive the traditional system. The truly critical — and I am glad to know a few such people in the faculties of a few German universities — are the exception, not the rule.

The traditional school system has stuck to the same basic paradigm since it was conceived during the Industrial revolution. Society is deeply invested in that paradigm, since the vast majority of us have been through that system, and rejecting the validity of their assumptions about learning means rejecting the validity of how we spent many (unpleasant) hours in childhood. Making that kind of concession is not easy. At this point, improving education is a matter of revolution, not evolution.

Context, relevance, context!

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.

I will have to remember this next time someone tells me that students in a democratic school won’t learn anything properly because they aren’t forced to stick to a topic for 45 minutes in a static context. This research strongly suggests that the constantly changing, dynamic atmosphere of democratic schools is a terrific boon for learning. This seems right in line with the thought that having a relevant context is crucial for learning: when you learn something because it is interesting and relevant to you at that moment, you learn it better. Classrooms have a hard time providing that kind of context. A school where students explore things freely allows that relevance to happen all the time.

Exams, revisited?

[…] cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Tests are a learning tool? I guess you really do learn something new every day! I wrote a little about testing in July, and indeed as most people do, I treated testing as mere assessment. I stand happily corrected.

In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.

But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

It’s good to know that testing can actually help you learn things, but if this is their usefulness, this is not reflected by the way they are treated in schools and universities. I can only emphasize what I’ve said before: the importance of exam grades must be abolished. Then perhaps tests can be useful. Making test grades important only encourages the kind of learning that gets forgotten.

Like this post?

Flattr this

Flattr it!

Some thoughts about "democratic schools"

(-> German translation/Deutsche Übersetzung)


The term “democratic school” has always seemed problematic to me. It’s problematic because democracy isn’t really the point. Democracy is a tool for creating something else: a community where free learning is possible, as much as such a community is possible. All democratic schools should be run by a democracy, but not every school that is run democratically is automatically a democratic school.

A democratic school is a place where students are responsible for how they use their own time. It is a school which does not try to encourage students, explicitly or implicitly, to take classes and tests. It is a place where people are treated with respect, and know they can expect justice to be served when someone disrespects the community or an individual.


It just so happens that certain styles of democracy serve as excellent tools for upholding freedom and respect. However, it’s very easy to get it wrong, which is why Sudbury schools are very insistent on getting it right. These schools set up very well-defined democracies, because democracy is only good so long as it does not overreach — it has to be there to protect students’ freedom in the present, without presuming to know what choices are better for their future, or infringing on the privacy of their feelings.


Incidentally, the word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public matter”. This hints at a very important idea: the polity (the state, the city, the school) is a public institution, and is something you keep separate from private things.

Sudbury schools use a Judicial Committee which focusses on whether school laws were broken (not on why, or what the individual is going through personally). Some in the free school movement express uneasiness about this seemingly severe approach to justice. However, anyone who has spent some time in such a school knows it is a good thing. Judicial Committee deals with the public aspect of disputes — disrespect of community decisions in such a way that bothered someone enough that they fill out a complaint. This process ignores the personal aspects completely and intentionally.

However, it leaves plenty of room for individuals to address these aspects on a truly personal level. And these are things that come across better when they’re truly and sincerely personal (like talking about problems at home, or about issues one is having with the school or with people there). The judicial process may not directly address the problems that lead people to break community decisions, but it does help others see the problem, which allows them to deal with it. And on the upside, it respects people’s privacy — sometimes you don’t feel like telling just anyone about how you feel.


There are other benefits to separation of the public and the personal. When the community has accustomed itself to this habit, democratic meetings work better — being warned by the Chair is a technical issue, not a personal thing you have to get annoyed about; you can argue strongly against a friend’s motion without them taking it as an insult; every member of the community can apply their thinking to the process as much as they’d like without constantly worrying about the conclusions being taken the wrong way.


When a democracy protects the community’s interests and the individuals’ interests while keeping them separate, that democracy can create a democratic school. It can create a place where students develop freely and learn to direct their own learning and gauge their own success. It empowers students to determine their own direction and participate vigorously in community life.

None of these things are automatic, and protecting them is half the secret of success for those democratic schools that have succeeded.

Flattr this

Like this post? Flattr it!