I have always been very bad at memorizing things, especially equations. However, most of the classes during my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering required me to memorize numbers and lots of equations. I still remember the day, when I went home feeling completely devastated after doing terribly bad in my Hydraulics exam. I wasn’t sad because I didn’t know how to solve the problems, in fact I knew the solution to each and every problem very well. However, at that moment, I couldn’t remember some of the equations associated with solving those problems and hence, I couldn’t write the final answer in numbers. I knew I wasn’t going to get good grades although I wrote the step by step procedure to solve the problems because the examiners only cared about the final answer. Finally, the results came out and I got a very poor score which was expected.
This is probably the story for many people like me who have a hard time memorizing equations and thus have failed to get good grades in exams. Our education systems are built in such a way where students are graded and ranked based on their ability to “memorize” things. An example of this is the multiple-choice exams where the students are solely graded based on the number of correct answer choices in the Scranton sheets. This in no way appreciates any of the efforts that the students put on trying to solve the problem. Even if you did everything correctly but messed up while pressing some numbers on the calculator in the final step, you will probably be put in the same category as someone who had absolutely no clue about how to solve the problem.
I think there are issues with both the examining and the grading system which in many ways forces students to “rote learn” and the distinction between a good and a poor student is made based on their grades. There has to be definitely a better methodology for teaching and grading where mindful learning is encouraged and the efforts of the students in solving the problem is appreciated.
Sara Lamb Harrell
September 18, 2017 @ 1:46 pm
Oh my gosh, I felt like you were telling my story in your post! The whole time I read this, I was nodding my head like “yep. yep. yep.”…now while I never took Hydraulics, I definitely took Calculus II (the last of the Calculus I could bear to take) and it was the one that broke me. Up until then, I LOVED math. But that one semester of Cal II ended my career in mathematics.
We were given tests with 4-5 problems and expected to remember the formulas and how to work the problems… but the *process* of coming up with the solution was less important than the actual solution. I remember doing poorly on exams because I messed up the formula or like you, hit a button on the calculator wrong, producing an incorrect answer and losing credit (losing lots of credit) for a simple clerical error. Did the test adequately measure whether I understood what we were doing in class? Did my performance on the test fairly show that I had been present, working, paying attention, and participating in class? Maybe if there had been an early intervention, I would have had the courage to seek out help or tutoring. (15/16 year-olds don’t always have the best reasoning or decision-making skills…)
So many years removed from that course, we’ll never know, because as I made it through that class with a moderate passing grade, I told myself “I’m not good enough for these higher math courses” and I spent the next ten years avoiding higher math. When I got to college, I was asked if I wanted to take more calculus my freshman year–I chose not to when I learned that I could just take College Algebra and that would be sufficient to get me through my undergraduate degree. (How sad is that? I got dual-enrollment for Calculus in high school, but I was so devastated by my performance, I never challenged myself in math again!) Looking back, I should have taken *more* to try and sharpen my skills, but like I said, that class broke me. I remember getting back my failing test grades and just feeling like dirt because for the first time in my life, I was really failing at something. Anyway, maybe with more mindful learning, my story would have turned out differently.
But so my ending thought is this: do students who try really fail the class or does the class fail the students who try?
September 18, 2017 @ 2:56 pm
I agree with your point, learning should be measured by how will the student applying the skills not memorizing. They should be tested in how they benefit from the content in the real world, not in how to pass a class.
September 19, 2017 @ 12:15 pm
Sneha, I couldn’t agree more with your post. Isn’t amazing that you can explain the actual steps of the formula but just because you can’t write it out in a perfectly numerical way, you don’t get credit? I’m guessing you understood how to use the formula better than the rest of your class!
Your post hits on Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, where he discusses the banking concept of learning. Under the banking concept, students learn to memorize and regurgitate what they learn from teachers. This prevents the learner from taking full ownership of their learning experience. In fact, they aren’t learning at all. They’re just memorizing – it’s almost as if they’re brainwashed. Freire instead proposes that learning should occur through a problem posing method. I think your example with the formula encapsulates that message. You took a “problem”, understood the steps of working through that problem, and explained them using your own thoughts. The formula is simply a product of that thought process.
September 19, 2017 @ 3:47 pm
I was in Civil Engineering too. Actually I feel lucky to be in engineering. Though I hate memorization too, at least what I’m studying is not history, geography, language, law and etc. And I know this may sound cheesy, but really all the equations have physical meaning except for those empirical equations!
I agree with you that the exam should be more concept-based instead of pressing numbers to the calculator. But I remember one of my professors who taught structural mechanics said that if engineers cannot mindfully solve these simple exercise mechanics problems and calculating the correct numbers, any miscalculation will make the building collapse! Therefore, I think what I have learned most from all my exams is being mindful and careful on the calculation and more patience and perseverance.
September 20, 2017 @ 11:24 am
One consideration about “getting the right answer” in school vs on the job (where a building might fall down).
In school, we have a very limited time to prove we know the answer — exams are sometimes only 50 min in length. On typical exams, we have no access to any other type of resource — like the work we’ve done before, design tables, or even asking a peer for a review.
I understand why this is the way it is, but I disagree when I hear professors make arguments like that.
Syeed Md Iskander
September 19, 2017 @ 6:45 pm
The idea of memorizing equations kills students eagerness to think further. For example, say in the exam hall if you are burdened with the thoughts of memorizing equations, it will hinder your creative thinking process. The response to a creative problem would change significantly if your mind is occupied with the issue of memorizing.
September 19, 2017 @ 7:55 pm
I was not good at memorizing equations and constants like you. But the exams I had during the middle school and high school require a lot of memorizing. Couple years ago, I came to Virginia Tech for my Master’s. What I found was most of the professors will provide an equation sheet for the exam, which made my life easier. Sometimes I was thinking if the equation sheet should be provided for the exam so that students don’t need to memorize. What if the equation sheet is not available when we need to solve a problem in reality.
September 19, 2017 @ 9:05 pm
Your post has led to a lot of great discussions! I can definitely remember those engineering tests where I entered a number incorrectly when calculating the answer and then lost points for that mistake. During exams, I would double and triple check (if I had enough time) my answers to make sure that I did not make a simple mistake. And while I agree that engineers need to ensure that their calculations are correct, I agree with you that the process is important and the ability to evaluate a solution is important. There was one thing that I missed in my own engineering education: Most of the time, I didn’t take a few seconds to look at my answer and see if it seemed reasonable (or was it off by an order of magnitude or something like that). I could get an answer (and usually it was the correct answer) but I had no way to judge what it meant or whether it was reasonable.
September 20, 2017 @ 5:05 pm
Grads are not the symbol to mark the good or poor students. Especially in the art and design area. Educator is hard to give the grads. For the artworks, the teachers always present the personal comments like, I do not the work or It is interesting and I like so much. There is not a correct ask or rules to adjust the right work.