Saturday, March 10, 2007

Teaching, Assessment, and Information Literacy

I had a conversation with a literature professor the other day, one who assigns in-class essay exams. He says that he wished he could use computers for these exams because he recognizes that students are no longer used to writing by hand. However, he continued, this isn't an option because he needs to know that his students aren't cheating and, he argues, that he cannot know this if he allows them to complete the work on a computer.

But, sez I, you can't know that anymore (in a world where eyeglasses or even articles of clothing can be computers). Our challenge is to quit worrying about outmoded teaching and assessment measures. What we really need to be teaching instead are information literacy skills allowing (nay, requiring) students to be online. Can students recognize when they need to find information? What kind of information they need? How (and where) to find it? How to evaluate it? And how to integrate and/or syntehsize what they find?

How often, in the so-called "real" world, I asked, do we need to write these kinds of "on-demand" treatises without reference to other sources? If the assessment is merely about memory (that is, if you want students to merely show they remember who said what), then, fine, give them a multiple choice test.

But why not assign "essay" exams that also challenge students to integrate important information literacy skills?

I actually lost the argument with the professor. He will continue to do what he's always done (as long as he can, I suppose). But even the Educational Testing Service (ETS) is moving in the direction of testing information literacy skills rather than memory. So maybe there is indeed hope for the future (or, I would argue, hope that eventually what we teach in the classroom--and how we test students' knowledge--will actually relate to what our students need to know outside the classroom.