Sunday, December 16, 2018

Applied Learning in a Test-centric World

It was 1990 and I was one semester away from graduating with a degree in Accounting. I was taking Tax Accounting in the summer and everyone knew that was crazy. Taking one of the hardest classes in my major in a 6-week class was no joke. I felt like I never left the library that summer. There were groups of us there studying our hearts out day in and day out. I remember sitting at a table with a friend that was also taking a class. One day another student came over and asked us a question about the law and I answered immediately. I had memorized everything well. Reading over it again and again.

I will never forget when the professor announced the first exam. We could use our tax book and write any notes we wanted to inside that book. I thought I had it made! I wrote itty bitty tiny all through the book and felt prepared as possible. I was an A/B student most of my life and while memorizing didn't come easy for me, I could do it. I remember sitting there looking at the first exam and thinking "Oh dear goodness, I'm going to flunk this!" And I did. And the next one too. I was shaken to the core! I had studied like crazy, to the point where I was the one other students would come to ask questions but I wasn't ready for everything I studied to be applied as actual case studies. I didn't know how to convert my information into knowledge that would actually help people on their tax returns. I pulled a D in that class and I was mortified. I cried like a baby. How could I be an accountant if I couldn't really understand how to help people? Side note: I actually already was working for a public accounting firm and had my own clients at age 21. And, I was fairly good at it.

But the truth is I was 21, about to graduate college and for the first time in my educational process, I had to apply what I was supposed to have learned not just regurgitate facts like I usually did. Maybe I had to apply my learning in classes sometime before that along the way of my k-12 and higher ed journey but I had no recollection of it. My point is, I didn't know how to apply my learning because my educational testing was always about repeating facts back to the teacher. I really don't have very much recollection of critical thinking as part of the educational process.

Actually, I think that the professor was ahead of her time. Allowing students to take an open book test and apply the information that was in there. This was before the internet existed but she knew that every tax accountant would have that little book or something similar that they could easily access as part of their career. She wanted to know if we knew how to apply the book to situations.

Fast forward to 2018 and I think about the fact that education still often looks like the regurgitation of facts for many classes but today's access to information is even easier than ever before. So do we as teachers just give our students access to that information during exams and have them apply it in ways that seem authentic? Some do, others are still asking questions that can be googled in 2.7 seconds. How are we preparing our students for those applied learning moments?

  • How are they learning about history in a way to prevent it from happening again instead of knowing how many soldiers died in what battle?  
  • How are we teaching students how to balance a bank account (something everyone should know how to do) instead of word problems that ask how much of his $50 John has left after he spent $27.45 at the grocery and $6.52 at the cleaners?
  • How are we teaching students how to write for others when only their teacher sees their writing but being able to write a blog post is considered a skill needed for today's workforce?
  • How can the scientific method be relevant when the lab experiment is so prescribed that everyone gets the same answer? 
Applying the learning given to students thru the textbook, website, or teacher's mouth is the next step to knowing learning has actually happened and that the learning has led to something students can articulate through action. Assessment should be changing because it is not really showing the teacher or the student the value of what they are memorizing. You want students to get excited about what you teach? Make it purposeful. You want students to not cheat in your class? Assess them in ways that apply the things they can easily google. 

The thing that scares us as teachers: Not all students have the ability to transfer the information being told to them in class to authentic issues. I was proof and I was a good student! BUT, if we start transforming the educational process now, students will start learning how to look at a problem through a design thinking lens or value the need to memorize facts because the test is going to ask them to apply those facts in new ways. Applied learning isn't easy but a world of thinkers that are regurgitators is even harder. 

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