Sunday, January 27, 2013

I Did Sign Up for This, I Suppose

Exams are an industry in Kenya.  The Kenyan education system is exam-centered, exam-focused, exam-driven, exam-intoxicated.  Evidently it's a British thing, a way of educating British children more than half a century ago that got transplanted to their East African colonies.  Not long afterwards, the British decided there might be more effective ways to educate their children.  Word never reached here, evidently.

All educational advancement is based on what one scores on a set of cumulative exams.  Those who score in the top percentages have the doors opened to the best universities in the country.  Those who score slightly lower can still get into one of the growing number of newer, resource-challenged colleges and universities.  The vast majority of Kenyan high school students will advance only to the streets, to a trade maybe, to a job as a laborer or domestic worker.  Occasionally an alternate route to gain a 'diploma' may be found with the hope that then one can proceed on to become an undergraduate.  But all of this takes money, and not very many people have enough of it to make this sort of option a reality.

And once one achieves the glorious status of becoming a university student, the process of education by exam if anything merely accelerates.  For most undergraduate courses, final grades for the course are calculated on the basis of work done during the course and the final examination.  At St. Paul's University where I teach, I am mandated by the Kenyan Commission for Higher Education (CHE) to count my undergraduate students' course work as 30% of their final grade and count their final exam as 70% of their final grade.  My graduate students grade ratios are slightly moderated - 40% of the final grade for course work, and 60% of the final grade for the final exam.

I have concerns about this system.  I have taken my concerns to the appropriate people above me, and they listen as if they have heard these sorts of expatriate complaints before.  In other words, there isn't anything anyone can do.

My chief issue has to do with what this system does to pedagogy - to how I teach and how my students learn.  Education in this part of the world has long been associated with what I call information transfer.  In other words, learning means mastering information and then demonstrating that you know it by spitting it back on an exam.  I can see how this might work for certain subjects in mathematics or the sciences where there is a necessity for building on skills and previous knowledge in order to advance in the field.  There is certainly a fundamental level of mastery required for all academic disciplines.  This I am not contesting.  What I am contesting is whether that method of education is the only or most appropriate way for learning at higher levels, when mastery must also coincide with wisdom and capacity for thinking critically.  Critical thinking is not highly valued in the wider culture, nor is it even in higher education where the university lecturer tends to be viewed as God on Mount Sinai delivering the sacred words of the covenant to Moses.  At lower levels of the education system here, and even in some higher levels, questioning a lecturer/teacher/professor is very bad form.  A student's job is to learn, not ask questions.  So we transfer information to our students, but we don't teach them how to think.

I teach courses in History and Theology.  There is information necessary to transfer in these fields if students are to learn their way around a particular subject area without getting lost.  However, just as if not more important is that my students learn how to reflect on what they are learning, how to evaluate sources, how to critique ideas, how to understand why other people do what they do and think what they think.  This is not something that is easily done in the way we are mandated to measure student accomplishment.  I would much rather assign a major research paper in lieu of a final exam so that the student can choose something that she/he is actually interested in or even passionate about and go deeper into it, learning research skills, rhetorical skills, writing skills, and presentation skills in the process.  But I am not allowed to do this.  If I do assign a paper, then it must be on a much reduced scale commensurate with the 20% or so of the final grade that I can a assign it.

Having the grading weighted in this way does not necessarily condemn a teacher to present the information and then give an exam that extracts it back from the students and then call that learning.  But it does make it very challenging to construct a class in such a way that students learn something about thinking as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the various positions on eschatology, for example.  Most of my students aren't even aware that there is an issue here.  They want the 'whats?' and are not that much interested in the 'whys?', these being mostly assumed.  They are children of the system and they want the information so that they can master it so that then they can go on to the next courses and master them so that then they can graduate and go on from there to the good life.  They are constantly asking for my lecture notes and are appalled when sometimes, for a three hour class, my lecture notes consist of one sentence.  They want to master information.  I want to challenge, even transform them by creating a learning experience.  Or to put it differently.  They are concerned about the hardware, I am concerned about the software.

So I am sitting in my office this past Friday at the end of a busy day spent most revising an article for publication, when Lois, a former student of mine who now works in our Diploma Schools' office, comes and says that because my history-teaching colleague is on a leave of absence, all of the diploma-level history exams for all of St. Paul's subsidiary diploma programs (there seem to be six or more of them scattered across the country) need to be graded, like now.  And that I'm the only one on the whole campus that's in a position to do so.  And so would I please be willing to mark them?  Fortunately, they had already been marked.  My job is to serve as the 'External Moderator', which means I have to check what the original marker ('Internal Moderator') has done and make sure it is fair and appropriate.  Then, after keying in our work in the new Registrar's computer system, our grading work is passed on to the faculty committee who then check and make sure what both the Internal and External Moderators have done is ok.  And then it is passed on to the University Senate for final approval before the exam and course marks are finally published.  All exams at our university are handled this way.  Did I mention that exams in Kenya are an industry?

So Lois happily (happy because she has managed to offload a significant problem) drives a front end loader-full of last term's history exams for me to 'moderate'.  It turns out the stack is only a foot high, only.  She tried to make me feel better by saying other subjects had a lot more.  Thanks, Lois :-) .

It's the revenge of the system, I suppose.  Conflicted as I am about these exams and what they are doing to education here, I now find myself not only having to formulate and give them for my own classes, but now I'm grading everybody else's, at least at the diploma level.  If it gets out that I do this sort of thing, the grading may never cease...  I did sign up for this, I suppose.

Any thoughts on exams and learning?

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