Classrooms Evolved, Part I: Traditional Methods

The most common style of teaching ignores my definition of a class Student society, and student concern for their grades, are sidelined throughout the class hour. A professor will stand up with a lesson plan, often written years ago, and talk. For an hour or two or three, depending on the class, students just sit and listen. Students are essentially uninvolved with the lecture, except for the mental work required in paying attention. Then after class, students (supposedly) study, typically individually, and for most classes ineffectively. Standard ways of grading in these classes, such as exams and essays, individual and group work, do not help much.

Multiple-choice exams are not effective. Doing well on such a test requires the student to memorize terms for a tremendous amount of material. “A” students learn to sacrifice understanding to breadth. Students do not leave the class any smarter, or even more able to use concepts in conversation, let alone in life. This sort of studying is exhausting. Worse, it encourages lazy teaching. “It’s in the book” is a reflexive answer to a student complaint. It is hard to see multiple choice exams, as they are regularly given, as anything other than a rotten instrument.


Yet essay tests are counterproductive too. They are more useful because they require linguistic reconstruction of information, and this writing makes writing both more cognitively valid than multiple-choice exams. But essays encourages lazy teaching. By essentially punishing the teacher for giving this sort of work (it takes h o u r s to grade these things), essays act as constant reinforcement against instructors who assign them. Standard essay tests punish the professors who use them. Additionally, the temptation to use a rubric (and sacrifice measured comprehension for something mindlessly easy to grade) becomes too great – and at that point, why not just use a multiple-choice exam?

Assigning individual work is full of dangers. Private assignment deprives scholarship of a social component. The human animosity towards isolation can keep student from putting in the necessary time on individual projects. Likewise, individual work channels students in their own ignorance, too often making the assignment either a desperate example of fumbling in the darkness. Comprehension is ignored in favor of meeting the teacher’s requirements.

Not that typical group work is much better. Until graduate school I despised group work, because such assignments really meant that high-performing students would just carry the load for low-performing students. Group work without accountability was some sort of prisoner’s dilemma game, with one player being both unwilling and unable to meaningfully cooperate. Indeed, I think many teachers’ overemphasis on individual work comes from a learned aversion to poorly contributing group-members.

So what is needed is a grading system which avoids the memorization of practice exams, the grueling mind-numbingness of essays, the isolation of individual work and the free-riding of group work. Thus must be done in the context of a teaching style that embraces society. It requires a new style of classroom – a style I have been developing for years.


Classrooms Evolved, a tdaxp series
1. Traditional Methods
2. Social Grading
3. Deliberative Learning
4. Overcoming Doubt
5. Conclusions