The title for this piece comes from an episode of “The Paper Chase” in which the students are faced with the daunting task of passing Kingfield’s final exam in contract law. As I recall, the exam consists of some 100 questions in a variety of legal areas. It requires that the study groups that had formed during the course of the semester seek out the answers from a variety of sources, including the theology school. These lead to a scene where the other college faculty, in and outside the law school, complained about how this exam disrupted the normal and placid academic setting of the university.
It also played on the fact that many law students are predatory, seeing their success only in terms of the failure of others. These students would latch onto a source and keep it so that others would not be able to answer that particular question, thus being unable to finish the exam with all the questions answered. It became apparent to the one student whose life was the focal point of the “paper chase” that successful completion of the exam did not require the completion of the exam itself but rather the development of arrangements with the other groups to share the materials that each group had. In other words, each group had to write a contract with each group that would balance the needs of the other group with the requirements of each group.
In reality, the final exam in contract law was to write contract; what more should you expect from a final exam in a course but something that illustrates what the course should teach you? (There were some students who insisted that the purpose of the final was simply to get as many points as possible so as to pass the course; needless to say, they didn’t get it.)
Now, this was fictional but I can think of time when the exam was based on what it was you wanted to be after you graduated. One of the universities where I was a graduate student had a problem. In keeping with one particular environmental requirement, all of the waste for the various teaching labs was stored in 55-gallon drums and stored in the basement awaiting removal and disposal. And until a means of getting rid of the waste was determined, there it would sit.
Finally, a means of disposal was arranged but with the means came a new problem. Each of the drums represented a composite of wastes and it wasn’t clear just what was in each of the drums. To properly and legally dispose of these drums, the contents of the drums had to be determined. Now, most of the drums simply contained aqueous solutions so the primary waste was water. But some of the drums came from the organic laboratories so there were organic solvents to deal with and the way you deal with organic waste is many times different from how you deal with aqueous waste.
Still, there was the problem of what was in the drums? Now, as this was a research-oriented chemistry department, there were a number of graduate students in analytical and organic chemistry. And these students (along with the graduate students in physical chemistry and biochemistry) took monthly qualifying exams. Each exam that was passed generated a number of points towards the completion of the degree.
The powers that be decided that the qualifying exam that the analytical and organic graduate students would take one month would consist of one question, “This is your drum; what’s in it?” In all, this was a reasonable solution to two problems, how to ask a student a question that would test their knowledge of the subject and also identify the material so that it could be properly disposed.
I have always wanted to prepare a manuscript entitled “Do We Teach What We Do?” This is because I am not entirely certain that our students understand what it is that they will do with the chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, or other courses that they must take to either graduate from high school or college.
Ideally, each of these courses will offer a foundation in the subject area and provide part of the foundation each student will need to think and analyze a variety of things later on in life. But, it is becoming quite clear, through the public discourses that many people do not have the capability to think and analyze what is happening in their lives.
In 1998, it was reported that more than 90% of Americans are, by the broadest possible definition, scientifically illiterate. That is to say, they are incapable of understanding many of the scientifically and technologically oriented topics; in other words, they cannot critically think. They have no way of knowing if a claim made in the commercial or by a politician is true or untrue; they are quite willing to accept something as true if it comes from someone with authority or presumed authority.
And what is happening is that we are not moving towards decreasing that percentage but rather away from that goal. Our insistence on testing as a measure of competency and qualification means that we have a generation of children who can recall facts but do not know what to do with the facts that they have.
A recent manuscript for The Journal of Chemical Education that I reviewed noted that many of the students in introductory chemistry courses are ill-prepared to think independently and develop the procedure for completing a simple experiment. In part, I was not surprised by that statement because I have observed the same in some of the classes I taught. And I was not surprised because, when you only test students on what they know and not what to do with that knowledge, they cannot begin to create new paths of thought, i.e., the tool needed for critical thinking.
Part of science literacy (or scientific literacy, depending how you want to define each) is critical thinking, the ability to think through a problem. Testing alone will not achieve that goal. Nor will it help people to understand what science is and how it works. If you do not know those things, it will be very difficult to do much else.
In the next part of this series, I want to look at issues society is facing today where this lack of literacy plays a very critical role in an understanding of the problem.