As an academic advisor I have the pleasure of helping educate the world’s future leaders. Most of my students come from K-12 backgrounds where they excelled both inside and outside of the classroom. They have clear goals in mind and are eager to achieve them. The issue I am observing in many students, however, is the lack of learning and interest in learning. I think part of this issue has been influenced by “teaching to the test”. I’m specifically referring to the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and credit by examination.
Learning is more than simply memorizing facts, dates, and structures for exams. It is the process of taking in information, analyzing and making meaning of it, and applying it to everyday life. The process of learning is essentially the scientific method – a process my father taught me very early on – and is included as part of the advising and teaching content of my everyday work with students. While the idea and intent of the No Child Left Behind Act sounds good, the way it was implemented and the apparent lack of proper evaluation of its effectiveness has put a damper on student learning. We’ve heard this all so much, but for the past several years since the Act’s implementation, K-12 students have mostly been taught to take standardized tests and reprimands have been enforced onto students, teachers, schools, and school districts when students do not perform well on these tests. In addition, credit by examination has some influence on this issue. In general, credit by examination is an insightful way to allow high-achieving high school students to “test the water” of college courses. Today, many high school students interested in attending college tend to take courses where they can earn credit by examination: Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses; as well as the courses’ respective exams to earn college credit. These students then enter higher education at levels, credit-wise, beyond entering college students of past generations. In my experience, which I will soon explain, many students do not actually retain the information they learned in those college-level courses due to simply being taught how to take the AP or IB exams.
I often read articles that indicate employers and graduate/professionals programs do not feel college graduates have not learned what they needed to in order to be ready for demands ahead of them. In addition, at the various institutions I have worked at, I have often heard students constantly wanting to know “what is going to be on the test?” They do not seem to want to understand the content for its future uses, but simply how they will be able to leave their courses with a good grade. Some students I have worked with seem to focus so much on what they think will be on their tests but mention they failed a test because they did not understand the way the professor phrased the questions. When a person truly learns something, the phrasing of questions should not necessarily inhibit the ability answer questions, unless intent was preplanned. Specifically, with the population I work with, pre-health students, the issue of not learning information can be detrimental to their profession. When having the discussion on learning with my students, I typically use the example of a health care professional who is caring for a patient in a life-threatening situation. The professional cannot simply tell the patient they do not know what to do because they learned that certain important information needed to take care of the patient for a course exam back in school and has now forgotten it. Although I do realize this is a pretty extreme example, it is representative of the impact of a constant focus on testing versus learning.
Through all of my reflection on this issue I do try to take into account factors such as developmental implications, however, regardless, the issue of “teaching to the test” needs to be explored more if we are going to continue to produce informed, well-rounded leaders through education. Until the government fixes this issue, Student Affairs educators can (and do) fill the role of refocusing college students’ idea of learning. Conversations both one-one-one and in groups should be had where students are challenged by educators and their peers to think critically about inside and outside of the classroom experiences. Furthermore, the scientific method is not just for rocket scientists’ use, Student Affairs educators can bring back to light this concept and use it help students discuss and make sense of information in forums, workshops, advising meetings, leadership retreats, etc. It is with this type of learning that helps students succeed in coursework, be competitive candidates for employment and graduate/professional programs, and function as informed and productive citizens.