Thursday, 15 May 2014

Exam Depression

It's that time of the year when students and academics both find themselves in low spirits. The students as they have to take exams, academics because they have to mark said exams. And every year I sit down to a large pile of exam scripts and consider alternate careers where I do not have to deal with the despair of seeing the same desperate attempts encoded in barely comprehensible chicken scratchings.

As an educator I wish to see my students improve, not just in the knowledge they possess but more importantly in the skills needed to make the most of that knowledge. The biggest paradigm shift that students face when progressing from high school to university is the change from simply recalling facts or formulae to being able to understand, reason with, explain, and utilise knowledge, often in situations for which they have not been explicitly shown before. Dealing with the unknown, making judgements, and synthesising new solutions should be critical skills that our students should display.

Unfortunately, even at advanced stages of the undergraduate degree, a large proportion of students are showing that they are still stuck in the old paradigm. Students are thoughtlessly applying formula, they do not understand what the variables represent, use formula in inappropriate contexts, make crucial sign errors that would be obvious if they understood the underlying physical situation. When asked to explain or derive a physical relationship, they just randomly manipulate formula (valid in a regime explicitly not appropriate in the situation presented) without examining the physical basis of the phenomena, leading to entirely erroneous results.

Worrying is also the inability to recognise patently wrong answers that are many orders of magnitude out, e.g. the volume of a Krypton atom being half a cubic metre, or that a buoy requiring a terrawatt of optical power to be visible at a range of 5km. Mistakes happen, especially under exam conditions, but not being able to make physical sense of the numbers calculated speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of basic concepts.

I do not know what can be done practically. Perhaps 12 or 13 years of prior conditioning through primary and secondary education cannot be undone effectively even in 3 or 4 years. But I'd suggest these general steps:
  • Improve mathematical skills. The maths should be the least of your worries allowing you to concentrate on the physical content
  • Put in the effort. Do lots of examples, without reference to solutions. Do difficult problems, stretch your thinking. Learn from your mistakes.
  • Explain to others, discuss things. The best way of learning is trying to teach it to someone else.
  • Integrate your learning. Make connections between subjects. Use knowledge in one area to help learn another.
For all the government rhetoric about universities supplying skilled workers for the economy, we're failing the basic principles of higher education, that of producing graduates who can think critically and effectively.