I enjoy the company of my students (well, most of the time), and during the last week of classes I often feel nostalgic about the imminent dispersal of this group of people who came together, through random chance, for just a few weeks out of our lifetimes. On the last day of class, I'd like for us to enjoy being together for one last time. I'd rather remember my students as relaxed and happy than freaked out and under pressure, and I'm sure they'd rather remember me that way too. Yet during those final class meetings, it's rare for any of us to be at our best.
Hearing my students talk leads me to remember my own college years, when my husband (also a college student) and I used to get through final exam week by ordering pizzas, keeping them in the fridge, and grabbing slices whenever we were hungry so that we didn't have to stop for meals. As if that weren't naughty enough, we'd drink too much caffeine and eat too much sugar--even though we were sitting more and exercising less. And then would come semester's end and you know what that means--celebration! (Read: indulgent food and alcohol--and a little too much of both.)
If we were studying for exams, we'd try to stuff our heads full--not just with facts we needed to pass the test, but with tips about the particular form of trickery in which each professor liked to engage. Much testing is a battle of wits: Which wrong answer has been deliberately planted as a red herring? Finish the test and we'd finally exhale: "Whew. Good thing I passed--now I can finally forget about all that stuff." (Never mind that "forgetting the stuff" isn't exactly the goal here...) If we were writing papers, we'd care for a little while, until we hit the wall: "At this point I don't care if it's any good or not--I just want this to be done!"
Mind you, we were the good students--the kind who aspired to grad school and attempted to impress our professors, the annoying super-achievers who caused the goof-offs and the party crowd to roll their eyes whenever we spoke in class (and we spoke a lot). Yet at some point, even we became too stressed out to continue caring. I just want this to be done!
I remember thinking then something that I still often think: Is this really the best way to bring about meaningful learning?
I'm not saying it isn't. Perhaps it is. Many studies on stress indicate that total stress-less-ness is not something to which we should aspire: a sense of meaning and accomplishment only happens when we surmount challenges, which means some stress is necessary for learning and growth. (I wish I had money for every student who tried to justify their procrastination habit by telling me, "I work better under pressure.")
Yet we're all even more familiar with the ill effects of too much stress (not to mention "coping" mechanisms like sugar, caffeine, booze, and too much pizza--things that work for now but that in the long run tend to backfire). The research for the last two articles I published took me into the realm of cognitive psych, where I discovered numerous studies that examine how learning, cognition, and abstract thinking are shut down in the presence of negative emotions. (That's why when somebody insults you, you don't usually think of the perfect comeback until two hours later.) This being the case, it would seem that many things about the structure of education--the high-stakes nature of testing, the tendency to pile all major assessments in multiple subject areas into the final week of the semester--actually work against the goal of meaningful learning and long-term retention. At the same time, too much slackness is clearly not the answer.
So what to do? If you're hoping I'm now going to turn to "the answer," sorry to disappoint you because I don't yet have one. (In fact, lately I've been excessively pondering (a) why I become less certain about almost everything as I grow older, and (b) how many of the world's problems seem to stem from people claiming certainty about things that no human being can actually be certain about.)
So, maybe the super-stressful model of education is fine and we shouldn't fix what isn't broken. That's a possibility. Maybe part of what we're doing is "weeding out" those who can perform under pressure from those who can't. Certainly our world needs a few people who can. Many professions demand the ability to work under pressure. So I'll allow for that possibility.
But I'll also allow for the possibility that there's a better way to do this. Maybe, if our goal is for our students not only to remember what we're trying to teach them but to care about it (not because we tell them it's important, but because they really believe it is), we could develop strategies and ways to pace our semesters that don't lead a lot of people to throw up their hands and say, "I don't care anymore--I just want this to be done!" Or, "Thank goodness I'll never, ever have to remember any of 'this stuff' again!" I haven't hit on the perfect answer, but I welcome discussion and suggestions.
One of my favorite composition pedagogy theorists, Mary Rose O'Reilley, said once that "we can count it as a good semester if we don't make students want to stop doing whatever it is we teach." Perhaps if we keep this in mind as an over-arching goal, it will help us to design assessments and pace our classes in a way that makes more of our students want to keep on keeping on. I'd be happy if, down the road a few years, at least a few students tell me, "I still remember what I learned from your class," or, "I got really excited about that paper I wrote for your class and I kept working on it afterwards." What I really want--and maybe it's too much to want--is not just that my students have learned the content, but that they have learned to care about learning.