Learning, Exams and Shakespeare

Here’s a happy little coincidence in my newsfeeds this morning.  I have two stories about, basically, how to do well in school. http://www.researchpaper911.com/4/quick-custom-writing-process-step-1/ This first one is just straight up canned advice on how best to write research papers.  Fair enough, I’m sure there are a zillion sites like this on the net.  But check the advice in the first paragraph: If you have attended class, recall anything you can about what your professor said when he/she introduced the paper. Make some quick notes about anything, no matter how minor, that you remember from the lectures. Lecture notes count as source materials and can provide guidance when you are determining you paper’s direction. For example, if your paper is on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and you recall your professor saying the female roles in the play are critical to understanding the story, this may be a good area to focus on and also gives you room to cite information you recall from lecture materials instead of having to do additional research. So their actual advice is basically to repeat back what the professor already told them, and show no additional thought.  Ok then. What caught my eye was this next one: http://kathzsblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/what-schools-do.html  and its opening lines: A student friend was recalling her school days – not very long ago. “Don’t write what you think,” she was advised. “You don’t pass A-levels that way. Write what you’re told.”  And that’s how it works. She took the advice, kept quiet about her own ideas and wrote the unoriginal essays that would gain the highest marks. Blah.  This blog, at least, goes on to express some opinions about the value of this advice. Mind you, I don’t disagree that these are true pieces of advice, I’m just saying I don’t like it, not one bit. Time for a quick story?  I hope so, because it’s starting… When I was in college studying computer science, I went to a place that was very heavy into projects and actual getting your hands dirty.  In this case that meant writing computer programs, rather than taking tests about how to write computer programs.  One of my fondest memories (ask anyone that knows me, I’ve told this story to death) is about this one class where the grading was broken up across 5 programming assignments that made up like 60% of the grade, and then a midterm and a final making up the remaining 40%.  I set about getting perfect scores on the first 4 programming assignments, pretty much failed the midterm, and was having a grand old time actually learning something….until the last week of class.  The class rebelled on me, and took this more traditional approach.  Claiming they were all burned out working too hard, they argued with the teacher to make the *final* be worth more, and cut back the remaining programming assignment to basically be worth nothing.  This, they thought, was a good idea. I was outraged, to say the least. The teacher asked if everyone was ok with switching, and I said no.  I told her, in front of the whole class, that I’d come to this school and this class to learn how to write computer programs, not to memorize answers out of a book that I’d promptly forget as soon as the class was over.  And that I didn’t care how she changed the grading, I was going to write her fifth programming assignment, and I was going to ace it, and I didn’t care what I got on her final and what little random letter she stuck next to my name in her little book, because what mattered to me was whether or not I learned anything, not whether I convinced her of it. And that’s exactly what happened, I aced the last programming assignment and failed the final.  Fast forward to the first day after classes, before we were to go home for the summer, when we all had to go find our teachers and ask for our final grades if we didn’t want to wait for report cards to show up.  I came by her office and she showed me her gradebook, which showed a final grade of 67 – at this school, a failing grade.  Next to that number she had written “C”, which is a passing grade.  “Do we understand each other?” she asked. “Yup!” I said, and got out the door fast.   Very great irony : A few years later I’m going back to grad school at this same institution, and attending the open house for the computer science program.  Who is running it?  This same teacher.  She said, “I remember you.”  My first class was with her, and it was an entirely theoretical class — *no* programming assignments, *all* text and test and memorization.  I got all A’s.  What changed?  Simple — my employer was paying for my grad school and wasn’t going to pay for those “gentleman’s C’s” I got in undergrad!

One thought on “Learning, Exams and Shakespeare

  1. Amazed to see you’ve picked up my blog. Whatever happens in schools (A-levels are final-year school exams in the U.K.), when I’m marking university essays, I don’t want my own words and ideas parroted back at me. They are my views and I reckon I probably express them better than my students. I want original thought and illuminating insights. Students get marked up for criticising my views and disagreeing with me (or with other critics), so long as they do so intelligently and thoughtfully.

    I think there’s a line in a Tony Harrison sonnet: “Good parrots got good marks.” It may be true but who wants to employ a parrot?

    Great to see your blog – Shakespeare isn’t my area of expertise but a great source of pleasure.

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