It is the second week of school and we are continuing our discussion of the philosophy and structure of this class.  I give them a minute to settle in, get comfortable.  The effect of the light in the room, a combination of daylight coming through the large bank of south-facing windows and the table lamps around the room, makes for a peaceful atmosphere.  The orange Persian rug, dilapidated as it is, adds warmth to the room, andthe trees in the courtyard outside the windows are in full fall color.  I love teaching in this room;  it lends itself to comfortable conversations.

Today, I want to challenge them to rethink the purpose of testing.

“How many of you have memorized something for school, especially in the last day or two before a test, regurgitated it on the test, and then forgotten it within, say, a week or two?”

Every hand goes up, just as it has every time I’ve asked the question.  

“Do you think this a common occurrence?” I ask.

There is a chorus of responses telling me that it happens all the time, that this is what school is.

Then I ask, “How many of you think this cycle of cramming, testing and forgetting is useful or meaningful in your life?”

Not one hand goes up.  Not one hand has ever gone up in all the years I’ve asked this question.

“Okay, let’s say you have crammed for a test and done well on it.  Say you aced it.  Does it mean you have learned the material?”  

David speaks up.  “Absolutely not.”  David is tall and very thin.  As will become evident over time, he drives himself hard as a student.  “Sometimes I learn the content, sometimes I don’t, but either way, I always do well on tests.”

With a little prompting, a flood of conversation wells up.  Every student has stories to tell of what it feels like to cram for a test and how futile the process is.  They bemoan the lack of learning required, and complain that teachers don’t really care whether they are learning.

It’s time for me to weigh in.  “Well, I happen to think that most teachers really do care whether you are learning.  In fact, they care a great deal.  The teachers I know and respect are constantly looking for ways to help their students learn more.  So something about this is really not adding up.

“It sounds like we all agree that cramming, regurgitating and forgetting is a pretty meaningless thing to do.  It’s part of what I call “doing school”, going through the motions, doing a lot of pointless activity for the sake of getting grades.  We’re going to be spending a lot of time in the next few days talking about doing school, because I believe we can do much better than that.  

“In fact, I would like for us to create a place where genuine, meaningful learning is the real purpose for our being here.   When I say ‘genuine learning,’ I don’t just mean learning about Physics.  I believe it is even more important that you learn about yourself:  knowing how you learn, how you work with others, how aware you can become of your motivation to learn or to keep doing school, how well you steer your own learning process.  I want every one of you become active participants in the process.  If we’re going to do that, we have to rethink everything we do so that it will actually serve the purpose of learning, including how and why we take tests.

“The good news is, there is a totally different way to think about tests than cramming and forgetting,” I continue.  “Here’s an analogy that helps explain it.  Oddly enough, it comes from the Boy Scouts, who have these things called merit badges.  If you learn enough about a given topic, you are rewarded with a badge that says you have mastered the topic.  It turns out there are dozens of different badges for things like orienteering, first aid, archery and so on.  Back when I was a kid (yes, I was a Boy Scout), they had a badge for Morse Code, and another one for Knot Tying.”  A couple of the guys roll their eyes; they are very comfortable on the street, and this Boy Scout stuff about archery and Morse Code probably strikes them as childish.   

“So here’s how it works.  Let’s say you want to get the badge for Knot Tying.  You are given a list of fifteen knots you need to master and some instructions on how to tie them.  On your own time, you practice until you think you can do all of them.  Then you go to the Scoutmaster, and show him what you can do.  

“Now, let’s say you can only tie eleven knots correctly.  You thought you could do all of them, but you just can’t remember how to do those last four.  You don’t get a sixty-six percent or a C minus for your efforts.  Instead, you now know exactly which four knots you still have to practice.  You get some new tips on how to tie them and you go home and practice some more.    

“When you’ve gotten those last four down, you go back to the Scoutmaster, show him you know how to do all fifteen knots, and you get your merit badge.  Then you move on to your next badge. 

“I think the merit badge approach is a whole lot better way to think about tests than the traditional bell curve strategy.  This way, taking a test becomes part of the learning process, a step along the way that tells you specifically what you still need to practice.  You learn from your mistakes. 

“Imagine for a minute that that’s how we do tests in this class.  You’re not done with a topic until you’ve mastered it.  Sounds good, right?  For one thing, you will definitely learn more this way.  Your grades will be better, maybe much better.  The only way you can do badly on tests in this class is if you decide to quit working and not do enough work to be successful.  That decision will be up to you.”

Jason is troubled about something;  he looks around hesitantly before he speaks.  “But if you need to go back and practice, doesn’t that mean the rest of the class is moving on without you?”

“No, it means you’ll be learning the new topic with everyone else and practicing the previous topic at the same time.”

He looks doubtful.

“Believe me, it can be done.  You’ll have to manage your time well, but everyone in this room is fully capable of doing that.”

Ayesha, who has an amazing Afro, raises her hand.  “What if you mess up a test and you don’t want to do the work to learn it?  Will you be penalized?”

“The only penalties are that you didn’t learn from your mistakes and raise your grade while you could (there will be a time limit), and that you still haven’t learned something that may make it harder to learn the next topic.  Physics is a great big structure, with a lot of pieces all interconnected.  Leaving holes in the structure tends to hurt you later.  It’s generally worthwhile to make sure you get it before moving on.

“But if you’re asking whether I will somehow force you to continue working and do retests, the answer is definitely no.  On that list of my working assumptions that we talked about, there was one that says when people are forced to do what they don’t want to do, unwanted consequences happen.  Well, I really believe that one.  Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to force someone to learn anything.  And even if I could, I would much rather you learn it because you want to, and that you enjoy the process.  Using force takes the fun out of learning.”