Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

When did facts become debatable?

Towards the start of my teaching career, I was reading an article with my juniors about the changing nature of education, and in the article the author stated something along the lines of school leadership is pushing for more student centered instruction.  One of my students told me that he didn’t agree with this statement.  When I asked him to clarify he told me that he doesn’t believe school leadership is pushing for more student centered instruction.  I was baffled.  That is a fact-school leaders are pushing for more student centered instruction.  You don’t get to disagree with that fact.

I was reminded  of this incident this morning as I was grading argument analyses that my seniors wrote in which they told me that they disagreed with the facts presented in the essay they were analyzing.  When did it become acceptable to disagree with facts?  What have we done as educators that allows students to think that they are free to simply choose which facts to agree with?

We are embroiled in a highly polarized election year right now that we are so worried about offending someone that we refrain from talking about the election or temper any talk of the election by appealing to both sides.  What good does this do our students to understand the issues that the country is facing?  My senior English class is focused on argument and persuasion, and I ask students weekly to consider controversial issues in the world.  Naturally many of them wrote about the debate between Sec. Clinton and Mr. Trump.  One of them wrote that Mr. Trump won the debate as he presented strong counterarguments with “correct facts.”  What in the world are correct facts?  The implication that Sec. Clinton’s facts are incorrect is astounding.  Facts, by their very definition are correct.  Why are we not teaching our students this?  One can misinterpret facts; one can omit facts, but facts themselves are not incorrect.

Now, I watched the debate, and read a great deal about it both before and afterwards.  I’ve re-watched clips and read the transcript.  Mr. Trump did not present many facts.  Unfortunately, if I say this in class, I will be called out as biased and pushing a political agenda unless I also disparage Sec. Clinton’s performance.

In our effort to remain unbiased and non-offensive as teachers, we have mistakenly adhered to the notion that all sides deserve equal play, even when one side is demonstrably wrong.  And that’s a shame.  We say we want to teach critical thinking, but we are unwilling to deal with the controversy that is necessary to true critical thinking.