This is not a test

Pencils“Ok class, clear your desks and take out a blank sheet of paper.”

That sentence still sends terrifying shivers down my spine. I remember the countless times I heard this statement all through my learning career. Those words should not be so scary, but we became conditioned to know that it meant a pop quiz, a test, or something to assess our level of skill or knowledge would shortly begin. So conditioned that today it still sets off a PTSD type hypersensitive moment, where I immediately think “Oh please let me remember everything”!

Would it not be great, if our students today could get excited by hearing this request from their instructor? Perhaps curiously thinking what kind of exciting journey will be taken where we need to clear off desk space and have a blank canvas? Unfortunately, we are still steeped in a world full of testing, assessment, standardized learning, and focusing on a student’s ability to regurgitate information in a specific way.

However, fortunately, there is a wind of change starting to blow. Minds like Alfie Kohn in The Case Against Grades who are pointing out how assessment is undermining a true desire for learning. Or like Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon who in 2009 reminded us to keep the flame of imagination alive in their book Imagination First: Unlocking the power of possibility. Reading these works, and several others, give me hope that one day students will learn for the education of it, rather than how well they perform on standardized tests.

Let me say just a few things about testing and the killing of imagination. I do not test well, especially on standardized testing.  Then imagine layering that anxiety over top of the thought of the results determining how my future may unfold based on how high my test score outcomes. So I boycotted. Yep, I totally did. Did not take the SAT. Still got into college. Did not take the GRE. Still got my master’s. Got into a PhD program at a pretty impressive school (ahem, VT)….but I did need the GRE. Which I did finally take, but was a formality of getting in; so I felt no pressure for scoring. All that said, I think I’m doing fairly well without the percentile ranking lurking in my virtual file.

I also remember being a senior in high school at a career fair where a female interior designer told me to my face (at 16 years of age) that it was too late for me to choose that career because I did not have the background. That felt like a slap to my face. Needless to say, I am not an interior designer. Good thing she was not a counselor. That was something I began my specific formal training for at age 34. And here I am today, still continuing to educate myself.

What got me to this point was not mapped out curricula, standardized testing, plotted target dates with specific goals, or grooming from Kindergarten to be sure of my education path. What did get me here was my life experiences, my curiosity, my desire to learn more about what fed my passions, and a lifelong goal to learn because I WANTED to know more. There is no test to prove my worth. No test to measure the value in what I have learned. We need to get back to feeding the want to learn rather than teaching our students how to jump through hoops to measure what someone else deems valuable.

What do you think? Should we be placing more value on the process of learning and education versus measuring the outcomes of canned educative studies? And if so how do we inspire the learning in better, truly valuable ways?



10 thoughts on “This is not a test

  1. Great post! I definitely agree with you… I feel the same way about tests and I definitely I think that they are not the reason to why I am here!

    I think some of the sideways learning techniques that we discussed last session are definitely great ways to assess ones ability to solver problems with the tools that have while being creative and thinking outside the box…. Such techniques will also teach them how to look for new solutions! Assessing the learners in groups is also a great way to help them understand the different aspects to what they have learned.


    1. Yes, I did like the sideways learning techniques and love the creativity of it all. Your idea of assessing learners in groups is a great way to be helpful in understanding of learning too!


  2. Karen I always enjoy reading your posts. You share from your heart and I appreciate every bit of that. I whole heartedly agree with you on the points you make about being let down by the traditional educational system. I have not been a traditional student either and so I can connect on those experiences with you. 16 years of age being too late…I was told something very similar at one point…still rings in my ears sometimes. Change would need to happen all throughout the educational system though…don’t you think? Inside out…it would really ruffle feathers for people who depend on and are bent on creating their futures on the basis of grades whether they actually learn something is a completely different story.


    1. Isn’t it such a travesty when the crushing of a dream, or even the hope of a dream, happens while we are seeking knowledge? I do think that change needs to be systemic and an entire overhaul would be required of the educational system. Feathers would be ruffled indeed!


  3. I’d like to share an acting story I was once told: During rehearsals, an actor was struggling with their internal motivation as to why their character would move downstage. The actor asked, “Excuse me director, but what is my motivation?” The director, having worked with these types of actors before, looked at the befuddled artist and said, “Your paycheck.”

    Sometimes motivation can come from the simplest of places. I think you’re right in the idea of testing creates an environment where students approach the material from a place of forced motivation rather than genuine inspiration. The rigorous forms of assessment can often cause students to overlook the simplest reason behind a learning objective.

    Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a great discussion! I agree that the traditional testing and grading systems certainly do not accurately reflect ALL students learning. But what has been threaded throughout many of the discussions here and in other blog posts is the need for change but not necessarily a revolution. Many students have managed to be relatively successful in learning and pursuing knowledge through traditional systems. But, as your stories illustrate, there are plenty of students “left behind”. Although I would point out that though a few of you were failed by the traditional education system, you have taken control, found motivation, and taken control of your own success, kudos! Perhaps, by addressing some of the problems with the current system, though, may have saved you some time and anguish.


  5. I agree with you. Exams specially those standard tests do not show anything but I always think about the alternative way for assessment. This semester I teach microeconomics and I do my best to improve learning process in my class but the system asks me to give the students midterm and final exams and the students also need those scores to understand their position. The question is, how can I fade out the side effect of exams and stimulate learning instead?


  6. Thanks for such a personal reflection on your experiences. As with many of our colleagues, I am also a very experiential learner who did not excel (barely passed high school and undergrad with a 2.0) in “traditional” school environments, but really found my true talents beyond the classroom. Those experiences taught me more and have contributed to my success in two masters programs and currently in my doctoral work. I think, for those of us with similar experiences, that being mindful and open with our students about our own journeys can foster a caring supportive learning environment for our students.


  7. I really enjoyed this post. Assessments of any kind are inherently make value judgements about what is important and what is not. This type of format doesn’t leave a lot of room for imagination and as post says that is one of the most important components to education.

    This weeks reading really made me rethink both the point of the assessments I have taken in the past, and more importantly how I set up my assessments for students in the future.


  8. really like what you said about “Would it not be great, if our students today could get excited by hearing this request from their instructor? Perhaps curiously thinking what kind of exciting journey will be taken where we need to clear off desk space and have a blank canvas?”

    That sounded almost funny to me at first, hard to picture, but then I realized that is what is so insightful about it. Classes have gone so far in the opposite direction into a “gotcha” attitude, that sometimes we don’t even notice.


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