Reflecting on Freshman Year

As a second year Master’s student I am serving as a graduate teaching assistant. There isn’t a need for me to teach every week, but I attend class, grade papers, help students, etc.

The students are quickly approaching their mid-term exam which also happens to be their first test. Our most recent class meeting was devoted entirely to answering student questions about the exam. As a class, they had over an hour to ask questions about course material.

Of the 25 questions I wrote down, less than half were about course material. We did, however, have a lively discussion surrounding the format of the test.

‘How many multiple choice questions are there?’

‘Are there writing questions?’

‘How long should our written answers be? 5 sentences? 10?’

But, above all my favorite question was ‘Do we need to know the definition of cultural anthropology?’ Remember, this is a cultural anthropology class – culture is even in the course title. The professor and I were both incredibly dumbfounded. He literally stopped drinking, mug suspended before his face.

He asked the class for the definition of cultural anthropology and, get this, no one answered. Not one of ninety students were confident enough to answer.

In addition to a much needed laugh, this got me thinking. In anthropology we talk a good bit about the ‘Western education model’, but I don’t think I’ve seen or heard a better example than what the students provided that day. In preparing for the test, the students weren’t interested in comprehending all of the material, they just wanted to know what to memorize. What to regurgitate onto their test papers. Even after explaining that the test would be largely conceptual, they continued asking what definitions to memorize and how many matching questions there were.

As I laughed to myself, I reflected on my freshman year of college. I did the exact same thing. I had been conditioned to repeat information not understand information. It took a professor absolutely refusing to give us a study guide or test outline or really any information about the test at all to snap me out of this ‘model’. I spent three hours studying for that exam, panicking the whole time. But guess what. I still remember that information and I earned one of the highest test grades I’ve gotten.

I think graduate school has finally shook from my mind the ‘teach to the test’ idea. I’m much more comfortable thinking broadly about ideas and theory and then applying that information. Not only has it made me a better student, but it has made me a better citizen. I can think critically about legislation rather than simply watching political ads. It allows me to engage in meaningful discussions which continue to expand my world view.

Later, I stumbled across another realization: most U.S. students don’t ever have the chance to break from this mold, to learn to think critically. I realized that this isn’t simply a schooling issue, it is a cultural one that may have much greater impacts than we think.

I’m considering a teaching career and I hope that I will be able to step outside of the bubble and explore other ways of learning.

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