June 30, 2008

Clues for the Clueless #7

Posted in clues to the clueless tagged , , , , at 1:39 pm by profart

Hint: Any sort of assessment probably requires critical thinking skills to complete; even multiple-choice assignments.


Every semester, in at least one of my sections (and especially online), there arise the discussion of multiple-choice tests, and the skills required to complete them.


I use the multiple-choice option in my online courses for two main reasons. The first, to be honest, is that the computer grades it. Immediately. I can even put in little messages to send back to the students about what they got right and wrong, so they get instant feedback. This makes my life easier, as I don’t have 70-120 papers to grade each week, the computer kindly takes care of that for me. I need only review the papers to look for patterns of problems with the group or with each student. After all, I’m an adjunct. I don’t get paid much, and I would prefer to at least make close to minimum wage.


Second, I am good at writing them. I use a careful methodology of using the textbook, considering the language of the textbook, and providing choices and answers that reveal whether or not a student actually understood the reading- often using the language from the textbook. Skimming a chapter and trying to take my multi-choice tests is probably a bad idea. We don’t have lectures. As I add in presentations, I write questions about them, too; but the main source of your knowledge is the textbook, so it is important for you to not just read the words off the page, but to comprehend what you have read.


I have a child with hyperlexia. By the end of kindergarten, he could read at an early fifth grade level. However, his comprehension of material was closer to the early third grade level. He could read the words off the page- long words were no problem, complex sentences, no problem. But did he understand a word of it? That is harder. It is all fine to be able to say words. Being able to understand what those words mean takes an entirely different skill.


As the semester wears on, I expect the students to think more about what they are reading. We have come further in discussion. We have done more work to familiarize students with what I expect from them. This is a gradual process; I don’t just suddenly stick a bunch of super-hard, thought-provoking questions in their assignments. Actually, I start the process outside of the graded assignments, ratcheting up the discussion questions first, and then the assignments.


That is where the trouble begins. Even using the language of the textbook, students have difficulty connecting different part of the chapter to come to conclusions. For example, the beginning of the chapter on Gothic at discusses the cathedral as Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth. Then there is. Later in the chapter, a discussion of stained glass and Lux Nova, creating effects of miraculous light as a metaphor for God’s presence. Can my students connect the dots, and come up with the idea that stained glass is intended to enhance the idea of a cathedral as sacred space and Heavenly Jerusalem?


Usually the trouble revs up in the chapter on Egypt, when in the discussion, I ask students to discuss non-funerary art. To be able to do this, the student has to understand what “funerary” means. Then they have to find art in Egypt that is non-funerary.

Invariably, I get long threads about pyramids (which are tombs), mortuary temples (mortuary… funerary… um… ), tomb portraits (TOMB portraits, people…), and grave goods (grave… funerary…). Granted, there are limited examples provided of non-funerary art in an introductory textbook, but I would think a student could still be able to find them- especially if they are being specifically asked to find them. But no, they just babble on about whatever they feel like. Now, that is fine to start a new thread and discuss funerary art all you want. But discussing it in a non-funerary thread just shows me you have no idea what you are supposed to be discussing!


Now take that to the multiple-choice test; you are asked what the point of non-funerary art is. The choices include references to funerary art, plus a choice of “non of the above.” Guess what the answer is?


Yet I am inundated with email about how “tricky” the question is. Well, I guess if you have no idea what “funerary” means, and your mouse has an aversion to clicking the little button next to “e: none of the above”, that would indeed be tricky. But then, the point is to see if you understand that all of those answers are about funerary art, and not non-funerary art, that you understand the difference.


Yes, you have to think about it a little. The textbook doesn’t say, “This piece is non-funerary.” The fact that an item has no connection to death, death ritual, tombs, funerary rites, or the dead should, I think, tell you the item is non-funerary; just as I expect you to know an item in or around a tomb is funerary. And is therefore not non-funerary.


Your grade school multi-guess test this ain’t. Welcome to college. 


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