Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Right vs. Wrong

Remember those tough teachers who only begrudgingly offered multiple choice exams and used the right minus wrong formula to discourage guessing? Every incorrect answer was subtracted from the total of correct answers, so if you weren’t sure of your response, it was better to leave the question blank than to guess. This led to some pretty agonizing moments at test time, especially when you were only 95% sure of your answer.

The best teachers were the ones who encouraged us students to work through our math and science problems step by step, showing our work as we went. When our tests came back, those good teachers would often point out where we went wrong, and lo and behold, we learned something. You could almost feel the light bulb going off in your mind. And as a bonus, you usually received some credit for your work. This sort of positive reinforcement helps students grow in both confidence and competence.

The Alberta government is taking the easy way out by moving to a multiple choice only format for diploma exams in math and science. Apparently this will save the public about $1.7 million a year in marking fees, costs of preparing the exam, extra paper and so on. But what price will be paid by young Albertans? No longer will they receive partial credit for the problems they come close to solving, a daunting reality when diploma exams count for half of the year’s grade.

How long before multiple choice only diploma exams are the standard for social studies and language arts, too?

a) When the provincial deficit hits $15 billion
b) When a flashier scandal distracts the media
c) When moderate Tories in the government caucus lose yet another battle to their right-wing colleagues
d) Any and all of the above

Multiple choice exams have their place. But when I was a student, I always felt like I was learning more when I had to show my work, whether analyzing a novel or play with an essay or solving a problem in chemistry or trigonometry step by step. Removing long-form questions from science and math diploma exams is a step backward for education in Alberta, and it’s unfair to students.

It feels like the government is taking its own multiple-choice test when it comes to solving their financial problems. But when Alberta’s social, economic and cultural progress is on the line – and it is – they need to remember that wrong guesses, like those old right minus wrong exams, have dire consequences.


Totty said...

I disagree with you on this one.

Partial marks for showing your work is for teaching, as it provided the student the feedback they need to learn and improve, as you pointed out.

Once you get to the Diploma exam it's too late, they're testing. It serves a different purpose so I don't think it needs to work the same way.

Gone With The Jeff said...

The reasoning for multiple-choice testing (MCT) seems to be to save on budget. Teachers put in so much unpaid overtime that extra exam marking wouldn't tip the budget very much, although the Conservatives are talking millions of dollars here.

I say, "follow the money". Maybe it's a half-truth here. Yes, the Conservatives will save money in school budgets for MCT's. Likely, major blocks of tests won't even be graded by the teachers. The test forms will be shipped to an off-site facility and graded by computer. So apart from the manuafacturers of #2 pencils... Dixon, with your crappy gritty lead, I am talking to YOU! And Mirado, and for shame, Sanford -- should be Sand-In-The-Lead-ford -- why can't you be more like Derwent?

...Apart from pencil makers, who benefits from off-site exam marking? I doubt you would need a) b) or c) to find that out, just look on the bottom of the MCT sheet.

Outsourcing exam marking provides another outome, where teachers are cut out of the feedback loop should the gov't decide to standardize tests. That happens when the gov't sets the curriculum, rather than the faculty. The teacher is tasked to keep the students calm enough to last out the term until the standardized tests can be administered. The test results reflect how closely the class adheres to the gov't curriculum, rather than how well they do with the teacher.

The point is not so much that the students miss on learning opportunities (that's why we have the Internet, Blackberry, and Cable), but that the teacher's role in the clasroom is diminished.

If you ask me, evil in the classroom is brought in by the teachers themselves. I am talking about PowerPoint (PP). I believe that there has been no force that has eroded cohesion in the contemporary classroom more than PP.

PP destroys the pace of learning in a classroom. Instructors jam way too much information into too little time. If you don't move the slides fast enough, the class falls asleep. If you use too many slides, you'll glass their eyes.

There is a strong correlation between the time it takes to write something on a chalkboard and the time it takes for a lesson to sink in, especially if the students are taking handwritten notes rather than downloading them from the teacher's server. That, and the act of taking notes makes students particpants in the classroom, rather than just members of an audience.

Teacher buddies of mine ALWAYS complain that the students they get seem stupider and less motivated every year. (Apologies to students everywhere, but this is how teachers talk. It happened when I was a student, it happened when my parents were students, no doubt Abraham looked at Isaac and thought, Buddha Almighty, it would be a mercy just to kill that dumb SOB right here right now...) I am beginning to think that my teacher buddies might be right, though, the baseline quality of students has changed dramatically since I was in University.

But then, so has the baseline quality of teachers. You don't see all that many career teachers anymore. Most don't last much past 5 years, which may be time enough to show the Enterprise crew a thing or two about Gorns, but it's not enough time to make a seasoned teacher. Classrooms have become mini-auditoriums, and classes are run like focus groups.

I never in my career had students who were dumber every year, nor who were less motivated. They certainly weren't the zombies my buddies would routinely complain about. Then again, I NEVER USED POWERPOINT, whereas all of my teaching buds rely on it constantly.

You want to improve education? Pull the plug on PowerPoint. You want to sabotage the MCT system? Burn all of the #2 pencils in Alberta. You want answers from the gov't? Look up your Freedom Of Information act, and follow the trail of dollar bills.

susan_rn92 said...

I too am in support of multiple choice testing in the proper context. Earl is correct in that it would be inappropriate for Arts courses, but in mathematics or science where precision is everything, I believe it is the right choice. (No pun intended) For example, you don't get partial marks for putting regular gasoline into a diesel engine just because they are both called gasoline. Your car will fail on you and you will have to call the auto club and pay for a tow.
Learning to write multiple choice exams is a process in itself and requires a different sort of learning and thinking. Speaking from the experience of writing a national exam in my specialty not that long ago, I can attest to this. I needed to learn not just the material, but how to detect the correct answer in amongst confusing choices. That is what life can be like and rest assured you are not rewarded for partially correct answers in most true life circumstances.
Perhaps high school students don't have this preparation, and that would be a pity. Learning how to write tests effectively should be a part of their learning.