facts & factoids (to test or not to test, that is the question)

I gave my online students a survey last week, to determine where they were spending their time (I’d gotten some complaints about my class being too time consuming, so I thought if a bunch of students all said they were spending too much time doing X, I’d try to figure out a way to scale back in that area).  The results were that they spent the most time doing two things — reading the material and doing the chapter responses.

Now, the chapter responses are basically this:  a 2-3 page (double spaced!) summary of the material interspersed with their thoughts on the material. In this way, I am not only assessing if they did the reading and understood it, but if they are able to think historically.  For instance, in a chapter that includes information on late 18th century colonial slavery, I not only want them to get the facts of it (7.7 million slaves, etc), but also why the colonists found slavery to be a solution for their labor shortage.  They don’t have to like slavery — in fact, I hope they find it deplorable — but they have to understand WHY the colonists didn’t think like we do.

After I posted the results of the survey on the course Announcements, I heard from several students, all of whom have asked that instead of the chapter responses, I switch to chapter tests.  I am hesitant, however, because tests, particularly the kind they seem to have in mind (multiple choice), don’t really assess student learning in any meaningful way.  Yes, they will have had to read the material, and do the work in order to take the test, but let’s be honest.  How many of them will sit down in front of their computers and go hunting for the answers in their books during the test?  They may get good grades on the tests, but have the really learned anything about history?  Or are they just utilizing the skills they learned in high school — namely, how to take a test without actually retaining any of the information?

And yes, I come at this from my own past, where I memorized this fact, that name, a date or two, and never really got any sense of history as a process.  To this day, I can spout lots of facts about Japan after 1635, but do I really understand the relationship between the Dutch and the Tokugawa Shogunate?  (Well, NOW I do, but as an undergrad? not so much). Can my students, based on three multiple choice tests, really express anything meaningful about the relationship between Andrew Jackson and the economics of the 1830s?  Or the reasons why, despite the English and American Revolutions coming before them, the French Revolution is often cited as the turning point for modernity?  And if they can’t, does it matter?  And if it does matter, then how do I get them to see that, and more importantly, express that, if I am utilizing what we all agree are less-than-perfect methods of assessing that knowledge?

Those of you who teach online, or who think about how best to help your students understand history, and even more important, THINK historically, how do you approach this issue? Do I give in and give them multiple choice tests (which, let’s be honest, would be a lot easier on me in terms of grading than reading 45 2-3 page papers each week!), or do I make them write?

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 11:29 am  Comments (7)  

what the hell is going on with politics?

Today, the Republican-controlled House decided that it was perfectly okay to for the various branches of the US military to fund racing of various stripes to the tune of over 30 million dollars, but to entirely defund Planned Parenthood, which provides healthcare and family planning (yes, including abortion referrals when necessary) to millions of low-income families.  This on top of the fiasco of HB3, which wanted to strip women of their rights to federally funded abortion unless they could prove that they were ‘forcibly’ raped, they were under 18 and molested by a close relative (the bill limits such cases to ‘incest’), or if there was an immanent chance of dying.  While the ‘forcible’ part was removed, the other two are still there.  In Arizona, Jan Brewer got her wish…well, sort of.  She was told by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, that it was okay to cut childless adults from the state health insurance plan, ACCCHS (30,000 as opposed to the 280,000 Brewer wanted to cut), right now, and after September 30th, maybe more.

But Congress’ stupidity doesn’t end with this odd claim that by invading the most private of women’s spaces, they are simultaneously creating less government intrusion.  No, they get even more ridiculous.  It wasn’t until Rachel Maddow and others decried it that they took building an extra engine for a fighter jet off the table.  Note, however, that even before the Republicans put it in their bill, the Pentagon had asked them NOT TO.  Seriously.  The Pentagon said ‘no, really, we don’t want these engines for the F-35’, and Defense Secretary Gates made his opposition quite clear.  But no, the House Republican budget contained the line item anyway, to the tune of $485 million.  Of course, once they were made fun of on Maddow, The Daily Show, etc., then they re-thought it.  And then there’s that whole repealing healthcare thing.  Some judges say yep, it’s unconstitutional, while others say it’s fine.  And even I, someone who believes wholeheartedly that we should have a single payer, universal system like every other industrialized nation in the world, am not sure it’s perfect…but.)

In Wisconsin, as educators and their students shut down schools and Democrats in the house flee to Illinois in order to stop the stripping of public employee union rights, the governor threatens to fill in with the National Guard, and sends state troopers to ’round up’ the wayward Democrats.

In Texas, even as he closes community college campuses, Governor Rick Perry calls on schools to create $10,000 bachelors’ degrees (books included).  While I am all for providing more access to higher education for more students, Perry, like many other governors, is stripping education funding to the bone.  In California, in a rather startling turn of events, the Regents of the UC system, and President Mark Yudof, have essentially (finally) stood up and said the cuts were bad, wrong, not okay…this after raising fees 32% last year, and planning on another 8% increase this coming year.  Jerry Brown, once a champion of education, proposes cutting enormous sums from the budget for the UC, CSU, and community college systems in California.  Congress wants to cut both Pell Grants and science funding, while even Obama proposes cutting the in-school no-interest clause for grad students. At the school I teach at in Arizona, our state contribution went from $3.4 million to $900,000.  Yep, a 78% decrease in state funding.  Long time employees were let go, the nursing program was cut, the library will see its hours reduced, two campuses will close, reducing for-credit languages to just one.  The list goes on.

When it comes to making tough choices, poor people and education seem to be the targets.  Poor people, I suppose, get the shaft because they don’t contribute to those enormous campaign war chests, and education is a target for two reasons: kids don’t vote, and when it comes to university funding, it’s apparently quite easy to stir up resentment at those overblown fat cat intellectuals who get summers off (just like their K-12 counterparts).  But let me be blunt:  I’m an adjunct.  I make so little teaching a full load that I qualify for ACCCHS, and food stamps.  SO much for that ‘fat cat’ thing, right?  And if I don’t get classes in the summer, I don’t get paid.  Seriously.

And who isn’t paying for these cuts?  The very people who precipitated these huge budget shortfalls.  The banks, Wall Street, men like Angelo Mozilo…where are they in this?  What about corporations who make massive profits, such as Exxon?  Oh, yeah, they’re getting tax breaks.  Take a look at this chart.  What do you see?  Yeah, that’s us, with one of the highest rates of income inequality.  And yet, the gap gets wider.  Men like the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are like the Wizard of OZ…they don’t want you to see behind the curtain, but their funding of the Tea Party movement has little to do with what you want, what you need, or even your best interest.  No, they’re out to repeal environmental regulations, union rights, and every other impediment to corporate profits.  Despite what they say, they don’t have your best interests at heart.  Hell, they don’t even care if the planet falls apart.  They’re only interested in one thing: money.  And thanks to those of us who buy into this absurd farce of a grass-roots movement get what they voted for:  a trampling.  You want ‘don’t tread on me’?  Good for you.  But unless you’re a rich white male, guess you’re pretty much out of luck.

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 12:05 am  Comments (1)