Cram. Memorize. Regurgitate. Forget.
If you are or have ever been a student, then the title of this post probably needs no explanation. You should know exactly the process I am referring to. You probably also know why I am writing this post at this particular time of year. After all, this is the season to cram, memorize, regurgitate and forget.
As another school year comes to a close, students all across the country and at all educational levels are spending many of their waking hours engaged in a similar ritual: Shoving large amounts of material into their brains with the hope that they will retain it all just long enough so that they can spit everything back on a final exam. Once this act of expulsion is complete, the information is banished from their heads and they will probably never think of it again.
In educational circles this process is referred to by many names: drill and kill, rote learning, or the banking approach. It is the dominant paradigm or model of education in the United States and it has been for a long time.
When I was a high school student in New York in the 1980s, we had to take yearly standardized tests in most subjects called Regents Exams (students in New York still take these). In eleventh grade I took the math Regents on trigonometry. Much to my surprise and delight, I got a 100 on this exam. A perfect score. I was obviously very good at cramming, memorizing and regurgitating.
Apparently, I was also very good at forgetting. I recently decide to re-take a version of the current Regents trigonometry exam. Of the thirty-nine question I was able to understand only four of them. Of the four questions that I could answer only three of them were correct. My final score was a 6. In 28 years I went from a perfect score of 100 to a nearly imperfect score of zero.
Just because I have forgotten how to calculate and use trigonometric functions such as sine, cosine, and tangent does not mean that I did not learn anything back in my eleventh grade math class. I know that by learning this form of advanced mathematics I was exercising important compartments of my brain that may not have been otherwise trained. I’m sure this gave me some of the building blocks of analytical thinking.
But I still wonder: If we are learning so many subjects in school just to forget them soon after we take a test on them then what is the function of this educational method? Why rely so heavily on a system of testing when we know that most of these tests are measuring students’ abilities to hastily cram and memorize facts and figures for the short term instead of authentically engage with and retain information for the long term?
As sociologists we often speak about manifest and latent functions. These ideas were developed by Robert K. Merton—one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. Manifest functions are those things that occur that are observed or expected. Latent functions are those things that are unobserved or unanticipated.
The manifest function of testing in schools—especially with our increasingly and nearly fanatical obsession with standardized tests—is to measure the extent to which students are learning and to gauge how effectively teachers are teaching. Educational administrators and policy makers who promote more testing believe that the tests provide the best measure to determine the performance of students and their teachers.
The latent functions of testing in schools are not so clear. They may include such things as teachers feeling as if they must “teach to the test” and students feeling alienated and disengaged from learning. These results were not expected nor are they easily observed. In fact, there are few attempts to even measure them.
Sometimes latent functions such as these are also referred to as unintended consequences. No administrator or policy maker would want teachers and students to feel detached and frustrated with the process of teaching and learning but increasingly that seems to be the result of this over-emphasis on testing.
What troubles me most about an educational system based on cramming, memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting is that these latent functions and unintended consequences result in something else about which Merton wrote: Dysfunctions. Dysfunctions are the negative effects of a process that disrupt social life.
As a college professor, I see the dysfunctional effects of an educational system based on testing when I look out into a room full of students. After years cramming, memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting, many students enter college with little intellectual curiosity much less a sense of academic excitement. Too often, the students just want to be told what they need to learn to pass the test or what they need to write to get a good grade on a paper. Because so much of their schooling has been based on this dysfunctional model, they have forgotten how to be the self-directed and genuine learners that they were when they first entered school.
In all my years as a college professor, I have never given quizzes, tests, or final exams. Instead, I ask students to write papers, make oral presentations, participate actively in class discussions, and work on collaborative projects. The manifest functions of my method are to strengthen students’ oral and written communication skills—the two most important skills they need for their future career pursuits (I don’t know of any job that requires you to fill in little bubbles).
The latent functions of my pedagogical methods are not as easily observed nor are they as readily expected—at least not by students who are unaccustomed to this type of teaching. By refusing to use quizzes, tests, and final exams, I hope to transform this dysfunctional educational model into a functional pursuit of knowledge: Instead of cramming, students will engage authentically with the material. Instead of merely memorizing, students will connect what they are learning with their lived experiences. Instead of regurgitating information, students will use their new-found knowledge in their daily lives. And instead of forgetting everything they were “taught,” students will retain and build upon their comprehension of the subject matter.
I’m not naïve enough to think that my teaching methods are a panacea, a cure-all for the problems of education. But I do find that most students appreciate the opportunity to be treated as real learners and not as parrot-squawking automatons. What’s your opinion? Given your experiences in school what type of educational model do you prefer?