Monday #22: This Is Only A Test

Last week I learned about a very smart, very creative, very interesting math whiz.  Her name is Vi Hart and she calls herself a mathemusician.  Her goal is simple: to make math cool.  Now, maybe some of you already think math is cool.  I can dig that.  It’s just that, for most of my life, math was anything but cool.  In fact, for me, it was a big, hot mess.  And, finally, I’m gonna confess.  I’m gonna come clean, right here, right now.  It’s time to get this monkey off my back, time to take this albatross from around my neck.

I sorta cheated my way through high school geometry.

I say sorta because geometry is sorta two parts:  first you have to remember the theorems, then you have to be able to work the proofs (I think that’s what you do… it’s been a long time).  But it was the theorems!  Those darned theorems!  If I could have only remembered all those angley, lettery, numbery things and kept them straight in my mind, I would have never had to resort to such criminal means.  Every time there was a test, however, they swirled jig-jaggety around in my brain and I got so freaked out, so confused, so mixed up that each and every neuron in my brain refused to fire and I bought a one-way ticket to F-town.  So, I was “sick” nearly every time we had a test.  Truthfully, I was sick. Just thinking about the test and how horribly I would do really made me quite ill, indeed.

Then, of course, I’d have to make up the test, during my teacher’s prep time.  Fortunately, this was back in the day when teachers could still light up in the faculty lounge and, lucky for me, Mr. Meiderhoff had a nasty smag-habit.  I was left alone to my own devices.  I would have carefully written all the things I couldn’t remember on my left forearm and around each of my ankles that morning.  Armed with the information I needed, I was sorta able to apply it to the task at hand and complete the objective:  solving the proofs.  I only managed a ‘C-‘ for the class but it was light years away from the ‘F’ I would have otherwise made and, actually, while these little academic crimes didn’t make math cool, they made the whole situation at least bearable and kept me out of summer school.

But, back to Vi Hart.  Now, she is definitely cool.  She got a degree in music and never did much in the way of mathematics in college.  She did, however, begin attending computational geometry conferences with her father at the age of 13, and found these events to be “different from school, where you are surrounded by this drudgery and no one is excited about it.”  She goes on to say, “any gathering of passionate people is fun, really no matter what they’re doing.”  Vi gets an ‘A+’ in my book and there must be a whole lot of people who agree with me because her YouTube videos are exponentially awesome and have more than a million hits.  And what a storyteller she is.  Check out the Mobius love story she devised between Wind and Mr. Ug.  I never knew that math could be so adventurous and romantic!  After all, it was math that broke my heart in so many ways all those years ago.

So, my heart broke all over again when I read a Times article about a recent study by Jeffrey Karpicke, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue, that lauds the effectiveness of test taking.  This study used 200 college students who reportedly read a passage about a scientific topic and then either just continued to read the passage for a specific amount of time, created a “concept map,” or took a “retrieval practice” test, which was actually a free-form essay exercise– an important component in this study.  A week later, they evaluated the three groups again and the “retrieval practice” test group remembered more stuff, as shown by their second test essays.  The article asserts that, perhaps, it is the struggle to recall something, as in a test-taking scenario, that helps reinforce it in our brains, an assertion that definitely gives a nod to the accompanying anxiety of the impending test.  The general conclusion of this study is, I believe, rather simplistic: test-taking helps you learn better than studying.

What really bugs me about studies like this is that we are given data to show that testing led to the preferred outcome, remembering more of the reading passage’s content, but we know scant little about the test subjects.  What were their majors and areas of personal interest?  Did those who studied the sciences in school do better than the others?  And, what was the level of reading comprehension ability among the group?  We were told their test was an essay test, but did they know that before they read the passage?  Did the group who performed the best have better writing skills than the others?  And, what was the passage like?  Was it dry like a textbook, with clinical and technical terms, or did it resemble, say, more of the adventurous and romantic story of Wind and Mr. Ug told in everyday language?  And, how long was the passage?  How many bits of stuff to remember were in it?  Because, all these things matter to someone like me who not only needed more time to learn the parts of geometry but whom, I believe, would have benefitted from a more storytelling style of instruction.  In the Reader’s Responses section of the article, commenter #274 is an SAT/ACT tutor and she acknowledges the general usefulness of tests.  She points out, however, that for her most artistic and creative students, what gets them into trouble is that the tests she helps them prepare for are being strictly timed and people who come to answers more slowly are, in effect, penalized.  She also believes that the missing piece in internalizing knowledge is being able to teach it to someone else.  I agree.

Luciano, over at Litemind, describes the “Memory Palace Technique.”  First of all, I love the sound of this technique because I am immediately visualizing a big, magical palace full of memories.  Turns out that visualization is pretty key in making this technique work for you which, to me, sounds a lot like storytelling.  Step 1 is to choose your “palace,” and this means that you create a place, preferably one you already know, that will become kind of like a metaphorical container for what you want to learn.  Step 2 is listing the distinctive features of the chosen place and he suggests doing this methodically, such as, always “looking” left to right.  Step 3 is imprinting the “palace” on your mind, and he implies that visual learners are going to be better at this than more linear thinkers.  Step 4 is association, where you fill the “palace” with what you want to remember and “memory pegs” are created through crazy, ridiculous and memorable details. Step 5 is “visiting the palace,” which is how the details are recovered.  He says repeating the features of the “palace,” writing them down, and repeating again are ways to make this foolproof.  Gosh, this sounds like the read, write essay, and repeat scenario described in the Times article!  What it doesn’t sound like is what most of us think of when we hear “TEST”:  multiple choice questions, with topics that are detached from every day life, designed in such a way as to give the test-taker the impression that all the answer choices might be right.  Or wrong.  Nevermind, the clock is ticking… just choose “C” and move on to the next question.

I’m all for accountability, especially when it pertains to what we pour into the minds of children, but a study like this really doesn’t give you the whole picture.  In an educational climate like we have now, there are very few people who would argue that our current testing practices are making our kids smarter.  In fact, anxiety levels among kids and teachers are so high these days that people I know who love, love, love teaching are seriously questioning their ability to stay in this high-stakes teach-to-the-test world.  Many of the schools who have inquired about my programs cannot schedule even one day of a fun, educational celebration of literacy until all testing is over.  And, as long as we are talking about cheating, there are districts whose fudging of test scores are so egregious as to make my pythagorean wrist tattoos look like child’s play.  Furthermore, the writer in me looks at the fact that the “test” in the Purdue study was actually a “free form essay.”  That gives the test-taker much more room to pull out what they perceived as important to retain, rather than being forced to eliminate wrong answers in a multiple choice question.  As for free-form writing, I’ve been telling teachers for years that poetry writing isn’t just for the creative writing class but for all classes, including math.

But, there is something in the Purdue study, the Memory Palace and the Mathemusician that takes me back to seventh grade math class with Mrs. Winner.  Where Mr. Meiderhoff was deadpan and glum (think, “Bueller?  Bueller?”), Mrs. Winner was jolly.  Where Mr. Meiderhoff smelled like a dirty ash tray, Mrs. Winner smelled like handcream and popcorn.  Where Mr. Meiderhoff wrote theorems on the blackboard like a zombie from the lagoon, Mrs. Winner told us, in this basic skills and slightly remedial class, stories like we were in a circle for library time. I’ll never forget how much trouble I had with fractions and how I, and others, just could not get my head around making common denominators.  She said, you know, class (and, trust me, there was a sparkle in her eye and her voice was cheerful because she, like Vi Hart, really believed that math is cool), it’s like you’re at a birthday party.  There are decorations everywhere, a band is playing, and there is tons of good food to eat, including cake.  Except, instead of one cake, there are a whole bunch of cakes!  This cake over here is chocolate with buttercream frosting and it is cut into eight pieces, and this cake is vanilla with strawberries and cream and it’s cut into sixteen pieces… but this other cake, here (and she drew cakes on the blackboard, not those boring fraction “pies” that teachers draw–and draw lamely–but CAKES) …this other cake is Oreo Cookie filled and it has 24 pieces...

She would tell us how the guests came and ate the cakes, who was a pig and ate more than one piece, and what the platters looked like when they left.  By this time, we were all hungry, of course, but I will never forget this story and fractions are forever linked to birthday cake, so much so that, when my own children struggled with fractions, I heard myself telling Mrs. Winner’s Birthday Cake story.

The fact is that there is data available for whatever point you want to prove.  But, in my life, I’ve been more transformed by meaningful information that encourages me to think critically about something, draw parallels with something I know already or predict an outcome, than I have with rote memorization that exists only for the duration of the lesson and test period.  SAT?  Can’t remember a thing.  GRE?  Yeah, I was there, don’t recall though.  Praxis?  Did that too… not a clue.  But I can cut a super-perfect, symmetrical mat and frame like a pro because of birthday cake.  The title of the Times article disturbs me, “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.” Is it tongue in cheek?  Because I find much more value in a lifetime of study and a lifetime of learning.  Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Stay warm, y’all.  Have a great week.

TRY THIS WEEK: Make a Memory Palace for something that you have to remember.  Shopping list? Meeting? Project deadlines? Put it in the palace.


P.S. Some of you have asked me if I have been running in this frigid weather.  YES!  Is it cold?  YES!  But, I am lucky to have my good friend, Joan, who is even nuttier than I am when it comes to fitness and it makes it go by quickly and enjoyably.  We bundle up and suck it up.


About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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