UPDATE: Rebecca Schuman has come under fierce attack for her article, including calls that she be fired. Please see this letter of support.
Rebecca Schuman has a piece in Slate which is getting a lot of attention. Titled “The End of the College Essay: An essay” she complains that “It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual ‘evidence’” especially when plagiarism is so rampant and the students who actually read comments are the ones who need them the least, etc. She is quick to add that “Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency.” But insists that she has tried everything, all to no avail. In the end, she offers up some alternatives to writing papers, such as written and oral exams. It is an intentionally provocative piece, and I’d like to make use of this provocation by making a few points drawn from my personal experience as well as some more general observations based on things I’ve read.
First I’d like to talk about the benefits of oral exams. I live and work in Taiwan where I teach in Chinese. When I first got here eight years ago (so long?!) I thought I’d be really hard-core about grading Chinese-language papers in all of my classes. Not only did I bite off more than I could chew at the time (my Chinese reading speed has somewhat improved, but I’m still very slow), but the very first semester I failed half my class for plagiarism. Failing half your class is not good for enrollment and the next semester I hardly had any students in my classes. As a result, on the advice of a colleague, I switched to oral exams for my undergraduate courses. Like Schuman, I also have taken steps to try to address the root source of the problem. I helped create a new “study skills” class where we spend two weeks teaching incoming freshman about plagiarism. But the time spent catching plagiarists in a foreign language, not to mention the inevitable need to then discipline those caught … was just too much for me. More importantly, I discovered that I really like giving oral exams.
Oral exams are tiring. With a large class I’m usually completely wiped out at the end of the day. But there are a lot of advantages which I wasn’t aware of before. As a graduate student I once conducted an interview at Educational Testing Service where they told me about new testing software that would automatically adjust the difficulty of the questions depending on how students answered earlier questions. They explained that this allowed them to get more fine-tuned results. I find the same thing with oral exams. If I ask a question and the student stares back blankly I can keep rephrasing the question until they are able to give me some answer. This way, even with students who haven’t studied or done the reading, I get some sense of what they learned from the class. And with the really bright students I can keep throwing harder questions at them to see just how well they understood the material. Over time this has provided invaluable feedback which has helped me refine my lectures and syllabus to make sure that the worst students get something out of the class and that the best students remain challenged. And when I don’t have a lot of students in the class I can even use the exam time to reinforce the message of lectures they misunderstood. Another advantage, especially at midterms, is that I can talk to students who are not performing well about the causes of their difficulty, often resulting in better performance the rest of the semester. The biggest drawback is that this method doesn’t scale very well when you have to teach large classes.
I’ve even used alternative methods at the Ph.D. level. For my survey of “cultural theory” class I found that papers didn’t work very well because of the breath of subject matter. Instead I switched to weekly online reading journals and for midterms and finals I host formal debates. Debating is hard because students have to learn to anticipate the arguments of the other side. Whereas in a paper a student might make shot work of functionalism, dismissing it as quickly as Levi-Strauss does, in a debate between structuralism and functionalism they have to take it more seriously.
The second point I’d like to make is that I think writing is something which has to be addressed on an institutional level. To really improve writing the university needs to take it seriously. When I was in college the work of training students to write better was handled by the English department. English 101 was taught in small, writing-intensive sections. Although, because of my training in high school, I came to college with better writing skills than many of my peers, these differences were largely erased after Freshman year. However, here in Taiwan the Chinese department (at least at my university) doesn’t seem to be tasked with a similar mission. I think that if one is at such a university it makes sense to do as Schuman and I have done and simply find other ways of evaluating students. There is only so much one professor can do to improve student writing if they haven’t had the basic training they should have gotten elsewhere. This is a problem that has gotten much worse in Taiwan because of recent changes. When my colleagues went to college here only the top 15% of students could attend university. Now over 97% of Taiwanese high school students attend university [the US is closer to 50%, although many students attend community or technical colleges instead]. Together with declining birth rates, the end result is that a lot of students are attending college who previously wouldn’t be there, but there has been little change in how reading and writing are taught in high school or college in order to adapt to these changes. Of course, one has to continue to fight to change these things, but in the meantime one still has to find ways to evaluate students that don’t require each professor to personally compensate for institutional failings.
The third point I’d like to make is that I always learned best when I took writing intensive classes in which I got extensive feedback from both my professor and my peers. I remember one professor in college who would regularly provide feedback that was longer than the papers I wrote for his class. I don’t think there is any substitute for the kind of learning one gets in such a class. But the problem is that providing such feedback is simply not possible in large classes. That professor used to scare most of his students off with a 20 page long syllabus (mostly containing “recommended readings,” but most people wouldn’t read the syllabus closely enough to see that). As a result he only had a handful of students and was able to give them the kind of individual attention he felt real education required. But that is a recipe for a very elitist form of education which runs counter to the mass-market approach so common in the age of MOOCs. If I don’t keep my enrollment numbers up each semester I will find my teaching load increased as a result. (Our contract requires a certain number of credits each semester.) This is again an institutional failing. If universities were serious about learning they would hire more professors (most universities are hiring more administrators), have them teach smaller classes (class sizes are getting larger – and with online learning exponentially so), and give them more time to give students the attention they deserve (instead of saddling professors with more and more bureaucratic responsibilities). I really don’t think there is any substitute for this model. But it is largely confined to elite institutions, and even there I hear dedicated professors complaining about how hard it is to teach the way they would like.
Finally, I’d like to share something I read recently, but haven’t yet personally implemented. According to the NY Times:
Grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every class, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance, scientists reported
Most interestingly, “The grade improvements were sharpest among students from lower-income backgrounds.” Possibly because the frequent testing forces them to develop study skills they might not have picked up elsewhere. I can’t really imagine implementing this in my own classes, but I thought I’d share it since it seems relevant to the topic at hand.
Ultimately, the question is how we can have an education system that serves a much larger population but provides the same quality of education? I think we can, but it would require radically restructuring global higher education. The current approach instead is creating a class of students who are given a traditional education focused on basic reading and writing skills, along with a much larger class of students who are given “alternative” teaching methods. I have given some limited endorsement here to these alternative methods, but if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that students could be better served by more traditional methods if only the institutional support was there to train them properly.