May 3, 2001


I have just turned in final grades to the department office, where they'll go (probably tomorrow) to the university registrar. Despite the registrar's office having a scantron form for grades (according to a former student of mine), we still handwrite the grades, and the university hires clerks to type in each grade by hand.

One student had an interesting comment about the final quiz. A question on one form of the quiz was, "By approximately how many years of life has the median age in the U.S. increased during the past 140 years?" The student wrote (in addition to an answer), "This is a terrible question. Does it matter to a future teacher? Rote memory?"

There are two issues here, one of the relevance of a piece of the course and a second one the extent to which exam questions can be relatively dry vs. more interesting and substantive. When I described (at the beginning of the course) what had happened to the population's age structure over the past 150 years, I explained a few of the possible consequences of the nation's aging (fewer voters with immediate family members in schools, for example) as well as how past conditions may have affected children (when during the mid 19th century, for example, at least one half of the population was under 20).

The second issue is how dry a question should be on an exam. Is there a reason for me to demand that students learn some facts, just as facts? I think so, because one needs to make arguments with details (not abstractions), and because one needs a command of such details. I suppose I could have pushed students further with this question: "Describe what has happened to the age structure of the United States in the past 150 years and how those changes have affected schooling." If I did so, I suspect future students might curse this current student.

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Posted in Teaching on May 3, 2001 3:45 PM |