Rarely is the Question Asked: Is Our Professors Teaching? Part II

Heather Cox Richardson

Randall asked a good question in his post wondering whether or not college and university professors are encouraged to improve their teaching. He has inspired me to blog about teaching issues in a more systematic way than I have before.

Today the topic that is consuming me is assessment. This is not a new obsession, either on my part or on that of the profession. We’ve talked about assessment for years. . . but what have we learned?

What, exactly, do we want our students to learn in our classes? Long ago, I figured out I should design my courses backward, identifying one key theme and several key developments that were students’ “takeaway” from a course. That seems to have worked (and I’ll write more on it in future).

But I’m still trying to figure out how to use assessments, especially exams, more intelligently that I do now. My brother, himself an educator who specializes in assessments, recently showed me this video (below), which—aside from being entertaining—tears apart the idea that traditional midterms and finals do anything useful in today’s world.

Shortly after watching the video, I happened to talk separately with two professors who use collaborative assignments and collaborative, open-book, take-home exams. They do this to emphasize that students should be learning the real-world skills of research and cooperation just as much—or more—than they learn facts. As one said,
facts in today’s world are at anyone’s fingertips . . . but people must know how to find them, and to use them intelligently. This is a skill we can teach more deliberately than we currently do.

These two people are from different universities and are in different fields, but both thought their experiment had generally worked well. One pointed out—as the video does—that the real world is not about isolation and memorization; it’s about cooperation to achieve a good result.

The other said she had had doubts about the exercise because she had worried that all the students would get an “A.” Then she realized that it would, in fact, be excellent news if all her students had mastered the skills she thought were important. When she actually gave the take-home, collaborative assignment, though, she was surprised—and chagrined—to discover the same grade spread she had always seen on traditional exams. She also saw that some of her student groups had no idea how to answer some very basic questions, and that she would have to go back over the idea that history was not just dates, but was about significance and change.

And that is maybe the most important lesson. The collaborative exam revealed that there were major concepts that a number of students simply weren’t getting. So she can now go back and reiterate them.

I’m still mulling this over, but I do think I’ll experiment with collaborative assessment techniques. Historians have some advantages doing this that teachers in other fields don’t. We can ask students to identify the significance of certain events, to write essays, and to analyze problems. With the huge amount of good—and bad—information on the web in our field, though, we could also ask students to research a topic, then judge their ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources (something that might have helped Joy Masoff when she was writing her Virginia history textbook).

As I’ve been thinking this over, a third colleague has inadvertently weighed in on it. He discovered students had cheated on a take-home exam, working together and then slightly changing each essay to make them look original. At least an assigned collaboration would eliminate the problem of unapproved collaboration!