Friday, January 10, 2014

In Defense of Teaching to the Test

Several months ago, I wrote about the importance of teaching like we write, that is having class sessions with clear introductions and conclusions.  I believe that the same logic extends to the way we think about a semester-long course.  As I get ready to begin my courses next week, I am trying to think about that first class session like an opening paragraph to a semester-long essay.  Accordingly, I am beginning with the end in mind.

The goal of my survey courses is to get my students to think like a historian through reading primary sources, constructing arguments based on those sources and evaluating the arguments made by others.  I do not use a textbook (at least not until the American Yawp launches next fall) but instead assign about a dozen primary sources each week.  The midterm and final exam asks the students to use these primary sources to construct a historical argument that answers a broad historical question.  I the students questions, but invite them to think of their own if there is something else that occurs to them.  I will explain these questions right away on Monday and encourage students to keep them in mind throughout the course.  In a way, then, I do spend my semester teaching to the test.  But I think there's nothing wrong with this, as long as you have a test that effectively reflects high quality learning outcomes.  A test that requires students to think critically, communicate clearly, construct arguments, an synthetically organize complex material is a test worth teaching towards.

I change my exam questions each semester, and when I sit down to write them, I start in a surprising place.  I begin by paging through the past year or two of the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and a few other journals that I regularly read.  I take seriously the charge of asking students to think like historians, and I am looking for a consistent set of methodological or theoretical questions that keep popping up in several articles.  In a word, I am looking for the big questions that trouble contemporary historians.  These issues then inform the exam questions that I assign for my students.

This semester, while teaching the second half of the survey, my midterm question reflects the new historiography of capitalism.  I will ask my students how capitalism shaped the nature of American freedom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  My final exam question draws from the transnational turn and asks the students to assess how the United States has shaped world history from WWII to the present and how, in turn, the broader global context has shaped recent American history.

A considerable portion of class on Monday will involve a broad discussion of these questions. My hope is that they will ring in the heads of my students for the next several months and give them a lens through which they will evaluate the primary sources that we read throughout the semester.  By having transparent exam questions, I believe that I am modeling to my students the kind of critical questions that we should ask of primary sources.  Having a transparent exam has worked to ease student anxiety as well as elevate their performance.  After designing assessments that reflect desired learning outcomes, I now unabashedly teach to the test, and I believe that my courses are better for it.

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