Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Checklists and Checking Out

This semester, as previously mentioned, I'm TAing the junior level MSE lab course at GiantU. I have to say, I may be learning much more than my students. GiantU is a very highly ranked school in my field, while SnowTech is rather less prominent. Consequently, I had expected a slightly higher caliber of students who were rather motivated. What I've found is that instead, GiantU seems to really attracted students who have mastered the system, rather than the subject.

What do I mean by this? They want to know exactly what to do on every assignment to get the grade they think they deserve. I've been flat out asked for checklists of everything they are supposed to include in their lab write-ups. I refuse to give them this, because I'm looking for their ability to piece together an argument. However, I get the distinct impression that many of the other professors in the department have gotten in the habit of spoon feeding their undergraduates. It's also very clear that they expect me to be on-call 24 hours a day, given their email habits. They clearly learned these habits worked somewhere, and I find it somewhat disappointing.

The modern K-12 academic system can be gamed very, very easily, in the era of standardized testing. If I had not been in the International Baccalaureate program, it would have been fairly trivial for me to maintain a 4.0 without any real effort, because you always knew exactly what would be on most tests. Because it's hard to quantify, No Child Left Behind has shied away from creativity, and critical thinking. It's about jumping through the hoops exactly as you are told, not about finding a route around them.

I was at the early edge of NCLB in my home state. My sister, who's only a grade above me, had a very different K-12 experience because of the difference in the number of standardized tests we had to take. Now, the students I'm seeing have grown up entirely in the NCLB system, and it shows. They struggle mightily with open ended assignments. Yet, in all their attempts to figure out exactly what they need to do to get the grade, they ignore the things I tell them matter, like proofreading (grammar is 50% of the grade for reports in this course) and proper referencing. Not looking forward to the next round of grading...

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