SINN: The future of finals week

Every student can agree that exam week is by far the most stressful and consuming time for high school and college students. But not this guy.
Apr 23, 2013

Standardized testing of all kinds — such as the ACT and SAT tests, college level Scantron bubble sheets, and other across-the-board testing applications — are not yet fading out as common practices. They are still schools’ ultimate gauges of student success.

            But alternative, additional formats are cutting their way into the classroom.

This stands not only as relief to college students such as myself, but as a practical solution to preparing students for the real world.

            This week is finals week for many colleges and universities. While most of my friends have their heads stuck in textbooks, cramming and memorizing and stressing out, I have the opportunity to show my professor what I’ve learned without filling in a single bubble, guessing A through E, or writing long formal essays in quiet classrooms filled with nervous tension.

            This semester, I took a class called Creativity at Grand Valley State University. The course description was: “an examination of the creative process across disciplines,” or something like that. I expected to sit through a series of lectures on people who have done extraordinary things who cannot exactly share their secretive, mysterious processes, because their genius puts them out of the range of averagely ambitious people.

            But that wasn’t the case. To the contrary, we learned that although the creative process is not easily defined in simple terms, and there are no concise parameters, everyone has the potential to do creative work and carry that spark in their own individual way. And throughout the semester we have been tested on this through creative activities.

This week, there is no exam. Instead, we are doing what we have done all along: creating something meaningful that not only represents our learning, but actively puts that learning directly into practice. It allows for retention of the material we’ve discussed, the work we’ve done and the lessons we’ve learned — all of which cannot be synthesized into an exam format.

The creative process, as it cannot be precisely defined, also cannot be computed and graded to a statistical fine point.

            The creative process is especially important in schools. And yet, when students are taught to the test, creativity — a valuable asset in the social, academic and business world — is shut off. The education system has not yet found a solution to keeping that flame lit without deliberately pitching a pail of water over it and dousing the encouragement students need to be successful — not just as statistical entities, but as people.

            Fortunately, in some realms that is changing.

            I recently had the opportunity to meet Sir Ken Robinson, who gave his popular TED talk based on his book "The Element" at Grand Valley’s Fieldhouse. He is a world-renowned leader in transforming the education system. He emphasizes the importance of talent, passion and imagination as the pivotal forces for learning, and acknowledges that schools have a way of stamping this out of students at an early age.

            Robinson writes in his book, “One of the principal effects (of standardized tests) is to discourage innovation and creativity in education, the very things that make schools and students thrive.”

            Testing is just one of those pieces to the system which fails to allow students to embrace their individuality and pursue their passions. The grading system as determined by rigorous final exams is the most obvious and disappointing factor.

            Our Creativity professor recently shared with us a highly unorthodox approach to transforming the nature of grading students in an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Jeffrey R. Young wrote the story, titled “Grades Out, Badges In,” which illustrates the potential advantages to incorporating a badge reward system into student assessment.

Badges, familiar to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (as well as video gamers, which inspired this idea), could reward students based on more specific areas than an entire course. Such a system could also reward them for mastering “soft skills not usually measured at all in college courses, like teamwork or asking good questions,” as the article puts it.

            The importance of improving these areas lies largely in the global issues we now face in the 21st century. The economy, the environment, technologies and culture are shifting much faster than schools are yet able to. Companies like Apple and Google are innovating way beyond the potential of schools to train students to think in the innovative ways which create such products.

            The changing nature of the world outside the halls of academia brings all the more necessity for the system to change within.

            Robinson explains, “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed.”

            I hope that transformation begins to happen more rapidly, because I honestly feel sorry for my roommates cramming cursory facts into their minds for the sole sake of this week’s exams, while I sit here and happily write this article.

           And I hope that by the time we graduate, when we enter that world with all its challenges, we’ll have all had a class that encourages us to be creative, rather than requiring that we simply shut up and chug right along with a No. 2 pencil.

— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist

Post a Comment

Log in to your account to post comments here and on other stories, galleries and polls. Share your thoughts and reply to comments posted by others. Don't have an account on GrandHavenTribune.com? Create a new account today to get started.