On Being Grateful

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I’m currently wading through my second summer course, Mechanics of Deformable Solids, which I’ve decided, for those who care, is pretty much what you would get if Statics and Intro to Materials Science had a baby. I have also decided that the name of the course is redundant, since all solids are deformable. There is no such thing as a solid that can’t be deformed if enough force is applied. This course is called Mechanics of Materials at other schools, which is more accurate. But I digress.

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Lions, and Tigers and Tests…Oh My!

I have two tests coming up, so this is the post wherein I complain about tests. Sort of.

I love learning – absolutely love it. The process of being introduced to a topic and being confused and stressed and disoriented and then slowly, with reading and practice and reflection, mastering that material and understanding it inside and out and being able to explain it to someone else – that feeling is one of the most satisfying things I do in my life. Recognizing how much I enjoy that feeling has helped me realize that I want to structure my life and my career so that I am constantly learning and being challenged.

Along with learning comes testing. While I don’t love tests any more than anyone else, I appreciate the work it takes to prepare for a test and I like the opportunity to prove what I’ve learned. Considering how much work goes into learning and preparing, it’s frustrating when the test doesn’t do justice to what I’ve learned.

Tests! The stress! The panic! The horror!Photo courtesy of kharied's photostream on Flickr.com

Tests! The stress! The panic! The horror!
Photo courtesy of kharied’s photostream on Flickr.com

I’ve been tested in a wide variety of ways over the past three years. Some ways have been fair and effective and have left me feeling good about my effort. Other ways have left me frustrated, angry and feeling powerless. I’m sure that some of these methods work well for me but terribly for others and vice versa. Some, I’m certain, work terribly for everyone. So, behold, my inventory of bad testing scenarios. Enjoy, and tell me in the comments if you’ve had similar experiences with testing.

The “Watch Them Sweat” Test
Some tests are too hard. A test is not the place to present students with problems at a level they’ve never dealt with before. I’m all for being challenged. I like to stretch my abilities, but that type of challenge should be presented on a homework assignment where students have time to think and, if needed, ask for help. I took a class last summer where each test was peppered with a staccato of students whispering curses under their breath. It’s terrifying to be presented with a test featuring problems you don’t even know how to start. I’m convinced professors do this for personal entertainment. Thankfully last summer’s class was heavily curved, but that can never erase the traumatic memory of those tests.

The Cake Walk
Some tests are too easy. They are. Sure, it’s nice to get an A, but getting an A without any effort just doesn’t feel very good. There’s nothing more frustrating than working all weekend on practice problems, shuffling through flash cards 16 times a day, maybe even flipping to the back of the chapter to do some of the really hard examples, only to show up test day and realize you’ve completely wasted your time. Working hard ought to be worth something.

The Everything Plus the Kitchen Sink
Some tests are too long. The material may be reasonable, but the test stretches page after page and there isn’t enough time to dedicate to each question. Students end up either rushing through and making mistakes or spending too much time on the beginning of the test and not finishing. If you’re quick, you can analyze the questions and dedicate most of your time to those that are worth the most points, but if all questions are equally weighted, you have to pick out the questions you can complete most quickly, allowing you to complete a higher quantity. All of these thought processes take away from the task at hand, namely demonstrating knowledge and completing questions thoughtfully and correctly.

The All the Eggs in One Basket
Some tests are too short. If a test asks only two or three questions, you have very little room for error before your grade takes a nosedive. With luck, the two or three question will be long, multi-step problems that can be graded with partial credit, but if a mistake is made at the very beginning of a problem, you won’t have much hope. Yes, students should know the material, but tests create a lot of anxiety. People get nervous and make mistakes. One mistake shouldn’t mean the difference between an A and a C.

All the eggs. One basket. No!Photo courtesy of Billie Hara’s photostream on Flickr.com

All the eggs. One basket. No!
Photo courtesy of Billie Hara’s photostream on Flickr.com

The Trick, No Treat
Some tests try to trick you. I’ve never experienced a whole test filled with trick questions, but I’ve had them here and there. Trick questions are cute, they’re clever. Professors like to ask them and then give the punch line when they return the test. Trick questions are posed like serious questions, but some detail in their set-up is designed to make you think – wait…I don’t think you can do that. The problem with trick questions on a test is that you’re nervous, you’re afraid you’ve forgotten some important detail, so when you get to the trick question you automatically assume you’ve just missed something, that you’re an idiot, and that you better just hobble along the best you can with the question even though it doesn’t make sense. You’re never confident enough during a test to say – no, this is a trick question, well played…well played. Instead, you’re the one that gets played.

Whenever I’m in one of these bad testing situations, I’m always left wondering – how is this preparing me for my career?  Will someone at my future job be standing over me with a stopwatch as I sweat through an engineering design problem? Will I be sitting in a room with no computer and no internet access and be asked to recall formulas?

In the real world there are colleagues to partner with, there are reference books and Google to supply formulas and definitions if you need them. Over time, and with experience, formulas and definitions get memorized without our even trying. We learn to work quickly and efficiently simply because we have mastered the skills and processes by using them over and over to solve problems. The best tests, and the best instructors, help us begin to master these skills and processes. They help us see the big picture so that we want to understand the details. They help us (continue to) love learning.