No sympathy

Betsy and Craig Newmark link to Professor Steven Dutch’s Top Ten No Sympathy Lines (Plus a Few Extra).

I Know The Material – I Just Don’t Do Well on Exams

Leprechauns, unicorns, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, hobbits, orcs – and students who know the material but don’t do well on exams. Mythical creatures.

I’ve met students who claim to know the material but not do well on exams, but when you press them, it turns out they don’t know the material after all. If you can’t answer questions about the material or apply the knowledge in an unfamiliar context, you don’t know it. You might have vague impressions of specific ideas, but if you can’t describe them in detail and relate them to other ideas, you don’t know the material.

In addition to content, every type of exam used in college requires specific, vital intellectual skills. Essay exams require you to organize material and present it in your own words. Short-answer exams require you to frame precise, concise answers to questions. Multiple choice exams require you to define criteria for weeding out false alternatives and selecting one best answer. All of these are useful skills in themselves. If you can’t do well on some specific type of test – learn the appropriate skill.

Many students have trouble working under pressure. That’s about the most useful skill there is.

There Was Too Much Memorization

Sad to say, students have been victims of a cruel hoax. You’ve been told ever since grade school that memorization isn’t important. Well, it is important, and our system wastes the years when it is easiest to learn new skills.

Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can’t possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can’t hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.

Rote memorization is a choice. If you remember facts and concepts as part of an integrated whole that expands your intellectual horizons, it won’t be rote. If you merely remember things to get through the next exam, it will be rote, and a whole lot less interesting, too. But that is solely your choice.

Dutch teaches science at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

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  1. What bothers me so much about Prof. Dutch’s comments on “I know the material but I just don’t test well” is that he doesn’t see AT ALL that his role as a teacher is to HELP TEACH THOSE SKILLS.

    I agree that the above line can be used as an excuse. but often, the student doesn’t understand why the material seems to make sense in class or while reading but not under pressure. Certainly there are large swaths of students who do better on their problem sets than their exams. What they don’t know is *why* they do worse on exams.

    Most science exams ask leading questions designed to point you in a certain direction. If you don’t quickly see where things are headed, the test is difficult. If you do see, the test answers may fall out of the sky for you. This isn’t something students are fundamentally familiar with, and it may nt be reflected in problem sets.

    More the point, for most students, none of these lessons about schooling are picked up naturally. That he expects them to pick them up without help from him is even more a problem. he could teach them how to dissect an exam. he could teach them how to recognize what they don’t understand on their problem sets. he could teach them how to recognize what they don’t understand. he could spend time teaching them to examine their work critically. instead, he berates them, and makes certain that student will avoid asking him for help in the future.

  2. Greifer: Did you notice that Professor Dutch teaches college courses? By the time I graduated high school, I had been practicing those test-taking skills for at least 8 years. If you graduated from high school without learning them, your high school diploma is a fraud.

  3. Bruce Lagasse says:

    “Leprechauns, unicorns, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, hobbits, orcs – and students who know the material but don’t do well on exams. Mythical creatures.”

    Add one more mythical creature: The Moderate Muslim.

  4. I had a student try the “I understand the material but just can’t put it into words” line on me.

    Strike one: it was a physics test.

    Strike two: it was a multiple-choice test.

    Strike three: he tried it on me.

    Outta here.

  5. My experience has been that students who think they know the material but can’t pass the exam are virtually certain to do better if they re-take the course the next semester. I’ve never had a student who couldn’t demonstrate reasonable knowledge of the material after having the opportunity to try again. There’s no disgrace in not getting it the first time.

  6. My personal favorite from Prof. Dutch’s list is the “I don’t have time” excuse. Look. I teach 14 hours of coursework. I do all my own grading, and make an effort to hand things back the very next class period. I have a research program that I make an effort to spend 1-2 hours on per day. I do volunteer work in the afternoon/evenings. I am on committees, and am chair of one. And I also have laundry, cooking, the other life-care tasks to attend to. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for “no time”

    often the people who complain about time being an issue live in the dorms, eat in the cafeteria, and don’t do anything outside of school and “social life.” The people who have kids, jobs, and are going to school are too busy making it work to complain.

    Do not come crying to me that being a college student is time-consuming. Look to your “non traditional” colleagues – they have more on their plates and yet they manage.

  7. Yes I noticed he was a university prof. So what? You think it’s okay to say “you should have learned those skills before now; sucks to be you that no one taught you. I don’t have that responsibility” ? What is the purpose of a college lecturer who doesn’t feel the need to teach those skills? What does he bring to the table that isn’t brought by half a dozen textbooks and problem sets?

    I taught college courses, both TAed and taught. Even half-bright students learn little in high school that makes them have to think; learning how to think is difficult. I certainly didn’t learn how to understand what I didn’t understand on a college physics exam in my high school courses. Neither do most kids.

    The idea that learning the material a second time helps is exactly the point: it’s easier, with practice, to learn what you haven’t learned. It would be easier with practice from a prof, too.

    His other points are rants that I’ve had. But again, does this list really help him to be an accessible teacher? If not, how is he better than an accurate college level textbook?

  8. “Yes I noticed he was a university prof. So what? You think it’s okay to say “you should have learned those skills before now; sucks to be you that no one taught you. I don’t have that responsibility” ?”

    Yeah, it’s okay. College professors (unless they are teaching remedial courses) do not have time to teach the basics to students who for some reason failed to grasp the basics during the K – 12 years, nor should they be so required. I would have been ticked off if my own professors had wasted time teaching the basics to the dunderheads who didn’t know them already (and so shouldn’t have been in the class in the first place).

    My roommate was pre-med in college. Took o-chem and all the other similar “killer” courses. I remember checking out a grade list with her once. There were people who were actually getting 10% on their tests! Would it have been right for my roommate to be held back (she was one of the few who got an A without the curve) because so many people didn’t know how to study or to think? Those students are dead weight, and college professors are not responsible for dead weight.

    If you take a calculus course but don’t know basic arithmetic, then it’s not the responsibility of your calculus teacher to teach it to you. It’s YOUR responsibility to get the heck out of that class and enroll in Math 101 to learn. Or even Study Skills 101, if it’s the “how to study” bit that’s putting you off.

    (And now I’m thinking of Boy Meets World, specifically the episode where Shawn impersonates a college student. He’s a gifted philosophical thinker, but fails an essay assignment because he hasn’t learned how to write. When he goes up to the prof, the prof tells him, “You do have a good mind. But you’re in college now. You’re supposed to know the basics. I don’t have time to teach them to you.”

    One of the many reasons why I love that show. And Feeny. Feeny was the best. But I digress.)

  9. Addendum: I forgot to add that I don’t think that o-chem students who don’t do as well as my roommate (who, I swear, had a pathological need to study as obsessively as she did) are idiots or “dead weight.” I’ve heard (secondhand) how difficult it is (eh, isn’t it known as the pre-med course that weeds out a lot of students?) so it’s most likely unreasonable to expect others to do as well as my friend did. So let me just amend that part to students who do reasonably well in that course, given the curve.

  10. sure sounds like those below ave are dead weight–what else does “reasonably well” mean?

    so the prof should only teach to the above average kids? because you graded on a curve, and then said you were only interested in talking about those who did reasonably well on that curve. funny what that curve means then.

    but okay, if the prof feels that students who can’t do well are dead weight, and he can’t be bothered to teach to anyone getting lower than a b in his class, I submit that a textbook is more helpful.

  11. I don’t think it’s so much that, Greifer – I happily teach students who don’t quite have the same knowledge base or smarts as the “A” or “B” students.

    What is the problem is the attitude. The students who come to you and say, “I’m going to miss class tomorrow; are we doing anything important?” The students who complain that they can’t find 30 minutes out of a week to do the short homework you assign. The students who treat you like their servants – who tell you they are going to miss a test for a sports event, and then, when you ask them when they want to make it up, they wave their hand at you and say, “I’ll e-mail you to let you know.” (And then don’t even thank you for writing a separate make-up exam and for bending your schedule to let them take it at a time convenient for them).