Level Failed

Of Candy Crush and Assessments

I’ve just recently started playing Candy Crush. Pretty late in the game (and I’m probably the last one to be joining the now-dying craze), but I think the adage “Better late than never” still applies here. Don’t you think so?

Anyhow, I’m still on level 23. Don’t judge me now, but truth be told, I’ve been at it for a week. I have plenty of excuses: I’ve got a demanding full-time job and I’m enrolled in 9 units at OU, six of which are multimedia courses which I am struggling with.

My mission is simple: to clear all the jellies, yet I’ve managed to continually fail. I can no longer keep track of how many lives I have lost. Despite these failings, one can still give me credit for relentlessness. And with each failed level, I ask myself, “Why is success just always out of reach?”

This reminds me of my pre-med days when tests were the bane of my existence. If I failed (which I inevitably did), I’d have to re-enroll for the same course, attend the same boring lectures, see the same faces present the same things exactly the way it was presented the last time, do the same activities and take the same type of rigorous tests. There were some minor differences from the first time I took Human Anatomy and Kinesiology. (The first time, I had a charred cadaver for laboratory and a bloated, possible drowning victim the second time. I don’t recall the third. My mind has blocked it out!) But the goal was the same: keep students from passing the tests. I think that’s what the goal was anyway. There was but one definition of “success” in my learning process, and that is to maximize the correct answers and pass all assessments. And if I happen to get the short end of the stick (again!), then I go back and try again, and again if necessary. In this case, assessment was an endpoint, a measure for completion and a hurdle to overcome, that would unfortunately determine my projected success and whether or not that diploma was finally going to be within reach.

I must be a masochist for subjecting myself to the addicting grasp of Candy Crush. But both are indicative of a core message—measurement and finality: this is how you did. This is the bar, and either you cleared it or you didn’t.  You failed. You didn’t clear all the jellies. Retry?

It’s all in the past tense.

Is this not an accurate representation of a typical assessment of learning? But of course, in an ideal setting, an assessment is never that simple. And in an ideal world, this should not be the case.

Assessments should be as ubiquitous as having a fresh cup of coffee in the morning and as familiar as your daily assignment homework. Perhaps, it’s time to re-visit the goal of education. If the goal of education is to promote learning and foster understanding, then assessments should not just be an endpoint in the learning process. Just like any process or development, it should be a cyclical and ongoing process of growth and measurement, not just of the student but also of the program, the strategies and the teacher’s skills. Assessments should be a tool for understanding how the learning process is progressing informed by the results of previous assessments. The goal is not the student’s ability to regurgitate information, but how they demonstrate what they know, and focus on learning and what they haven’t mastered.

A Case Against Exams

Consider the following scenario:

It is a scorching mid-morning when you walk into your doctor’s office. You’ve been having some upper epigastric pain secondary to chronic gastritis.  The over-the-counter stuff does not work, and you haven’t been able to drink your morning coffee. You are a threat to society when you skip your morning coffee. After waiting an hour and a half to see the doctor, your doctor comes in. He tells you that you should have an upper endoscopy? (A what?) Perhaps some imaging on your upper GI tract.

Your doctor tells you what an upper endoscopy is. He tells you that a hose will be stuck down your throat, through your stomach and into your intestines. He says you will be given sedatives to relax and that you probably won’t remember the experience. And there are so few pain receptors on the small intestine that you won’t feel any pain the next day. Of course, your doctor has never had an endoscopy.

I was a pre-med student in a past life. And throughout those four harrowing years (yes, you can’t fault me for relentlessness for sure), I spent months chopping up dead bodies in anatomy, memorizing the physiology of the human body and identifying every convoluted area of the human brain and its functions even if it had already been minced and sliced into tiny bite-sized pieces.

Every other course required studying, memorization and listening to hours worth of lifeless, coma-inducing lectures by one boring doctor to the next. I am especially reminded of the fear-inducing laboratory exams commonly known as the “move system”, which by some unfortunate incident would comprise 70% of your final grade.

For those of you who are not familiar with the “move system”, it’s basically a type of assessment that’s designed to guarantee utter and dismal student failure. Let me illustrate that. The classroom is set up into several small variegated stations containing specimen with each station being the equivalent of one text question. Individually, the poor sacrificial cows aka students move from one station to the next in no more than 60 seconds with the instructor-warden shouting move  every minute. Scarcely have the students racked their short-term memory for that one piece of information when they hear the warden shout “MOVE!” To add to this palpable excitement, the sadistic instructors have conspiratorially decided that each specimen whether it be a muscle, a tendon or a lobe of the brain should be cut out of its origin and either cut up into pieces, charred, engorged into unrecognizable versions of itself. That was a delightful experience in itself. I am being facetious, obviously, but I still am convinced that every faculty was a Nazi commander in a past life.

Truthfully, back then I did not understand the aim of the game. Several years later, I still don’t. I understand that the point of exams is to monitor student progress, but I think that test had gone too far. It seemed like the purpose of the game was to memorize, retain and regurgitate information in the shortest possible time, so surely it was a test of short-term memory and spatial reasoning. Was that a skill that would help me in my intended field of work? I didn’t think so.

Going back to the scenario I presented earlier, would it really matter to the patient if I could recite facts and tell a section of the brain from the right side up? Let me propose a question? What if instead I was tested on how well I can identify each specimen and explain its functions in a way that patients can understand? Wouldn’t that be a better method of assessment?

After three years in pre-med, I remember developing a fear of assessments which I never had prior to that. The mere mention of the word “test” itself would strike a terror in my heart. And on the day of the exam itself, I would be paralyzed by fear. My stomach would tighten. My palms would get sweaty and my mind would go blank. The next thing I knew, I’d be unable to breathe and my fingers, arms and legs would be apposed at irregular angles. I became a regular at the PGH-ER not as a medical professional, but as a patient. And my world came crashing as I came to fear learning because I linked it with those terrifying exams.

Didn’t Albert Einstein once remark: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

What’s frustrating about exams is they have no real world application; they just fabricate situations. Case in point: the “move system”. You can spend hours and hours revising for exams and still come up with a blank space in a white background. Surely, education and learning is much more than what an assessment shows.