Before the MITx final, they released a packet of exams from previous years as study material. Looking over them, I was quick to realize that If I had been given one of these exams with the same study habits and pacing that the online course had instilled in me, I would have been absolutely destroyed. Both the content of the questions and the way they were delivered were way more complex then anything I had seen online so far.
For that matter, they were way more demanding then anything I had seen in high school or college as well.
The biggest difference seems to be that while other exams require you to execute the material as you have learned it in the course, the MIT exams asked you to apply what you have learned to problems you have never seen before. It is the difference between someone telling you how to solve a problem vs having to figure out a problem no one has ever solved before.
The latter is obviously a much more valuable skill to develop. Rather then teaching students how to fish, they are exercising abilities which will allow them to develop better fishing poles.
It makes me wonder; are students at Universities like MIT smarter because they are taught using this method, or is it only because they accept exceptionally bright students that they are able to apply these teaching methods?
The issue of the lack of initiative thinking is one of the glaring problems wrong with the current education system. The majority of schools have come to revolve around the regurgitation style of teaching, where students are taught to parrot back facts and and follow instructions as they were told. This builds extremely bad habits, where if you do encounter a new problem you are much more likely to give up or go ask someone else how to solve it rather then try to figure it out yourself.
This is great if all you want are people who can follow orders and execute instructions, but it is horrible when you need employees to deal with unknown frontiers and execute creative initiative.
The problem has also become heightened lately because of the internet culture that has developed in the last decades. There are already a few psychology papers floating around showing how with the prevalence of the ability to look up just about anything on the internet, people are less likely to memorize or remember things since they can simply go and ask the internet how to do it later. You can look up transactive memory or assoicative memory if you are curious about that.
Studying the test, not the content
Probably the most glaring example of this are the standardized test that we use as one of the main guide lines for measuring education progress. Take the SAT for instance, one of the most used metrics for measuring student performance when heading off to upper education.
The majority of SAT classes and preparation is built around studying for the test, not for the content. They teach you tricks about how to quickly eliminate answers or what to watch out for. All of the content on the exam however, is merely executing things you have already memorized. The math portions are straight forward executions of simple formulas, while the verbal portion depends mostly on whether you already know as many obscure words as possible.
A lot of the standardized test used to measures the performance of schools are often similar. And because those exams were used as a metric of ranking and performance for the institutions, they naturally gained more of the attention in the curriculum.
Mastery and Content
So what would happen if we shifted the focus in schools to where the exams were based on applying taught lessons in ways that haven't been introduced to the students yet? Create a system where you couldn't actually study for the test? I think we would have to do a few things to pull that off.
1. We would have to have higher expectations of student performance. Class room lessons would focus primarily on the subject material of the course, with the students understandings that the exams would be fairly demanding applications of that material in new ways. If the students, teachers, and parents accept that they could adjust their habits accordingly.
2. We would have to allow students to fail. The current grading system is a mess in its own right and needs reform anyway, but under a system this demanding we would have to accept that A,B,C's are not the best measurement of a students mastery of a subject. Consistent 90% would be a lot less common with exams that demanding and that is fine, because students would be better educated by the end.
3. We would have to give students time to obtain mastery in the subject. The problem is with 30+ students in a single class room, education often has to be delivered out at a prescribed pace, regardless of whether all the students have understood the concept before moving on to the next. When new content builds on the old material though, students who fall a little behind face an expectational increasing up hill battle.
A conversation worth having
All of those things require a lot of resources however; in man hours, cost, and emotional investment to overcome old traditions. I would love to have or see more conversations about this though involving people in the education community and from schools.
A lot of what is going on in the online education initiative is about allowing students to work at their own pace to master material. Preliminary data and research has shown that when given time, students who were previously struggling on a specific subject can eventually catch up and even excel in future subjects when given the chance.
These new tools look pretty promising and I'm excited to see it pan out. For now though, I'll just try to see if raising these expectations for myself can help my own self improvement habits and education.