Motivating students to transition from learning-for-testing to learning-for-learning

January 27, 2020

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Matthew SchwartzIn his Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics course (a core class for physics concentrators) Matthew Schwartz, Professor of Physics, tries to move his students away from a binge-learning exam-based model, common in science classes, to one of sustained learning throughout the semester. To do this, he persuades students to read the course materials before class through comprehensive pre-class quizzes, replaces the midterm with a non-collaborative problem set, and assigns a take-home final weighted the same as two problem sets.

The benefits: This model instills deeper understanding through repetition and sustained study. With ideas from class being reinforced and practiced in weekly problem sets, the amount of test anxiety that students face is reduced. Additionally, Schwartz argues that timed exams are not representative of real-world challenges: it is more important to get the right answer slowly than to make mistakes when working quickly. Take-home exams encourage students to change their approach to learning by moving away from a “will this be on the exam?” mentality.

The challenges: Moving to a flat-learning model engenders some resistance from students accustomed to a more traditional model. In particular, students who are excellent exam-takers feel disadvantaged by the system. However, Schwartz believes these students will do well no matter what, and the system is fairer to a heterogeneous group of learners. The first year Schwartz made the switch, “students initially resented it and took some time to adapt, but in the end, they realized that it allowed them to focus more on learning rather than the exams.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Enforce flat learning by flattening the assessment. Schwartz grades the quizzes based on effort, not comprehension. Students can miss two quizzes during the semester. The quiz participation grade counts for 10% of the final grade, which seems enough to motivate the students to take them seriously. Lowering the importance of the final take-home allows students essentially to know their grade when classes end.
  • Use the quiz responses to gauge student understanding. Schwartz expects the students to spend 2-3 hours on the reading and quizzes before each class, so they come to class prepared. The last quiz question asks students to identify the most challenging parts of the reading, so that Schwartz can focus class time on these points.
  • Block time to distill students’ points of confusion. An additional challenge is the time commitment for reviewing pre-class quizzes before every class. Quizzes are due at 9:00 a.m. the day of the class and Schwartz reserves two hours to prepare his lecture to address areas of confusion and dive deeper into topics of interest to students. “It frees me up to go off on a tangent about something, and they don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s on the exam.”

Bottom line: Overall, Schwartz has observed that with this approach, students find the material and learning more enjoyable. By avoiding traditional examinations, students who have test anxiety are able to “learn for learning’s sake.” The course creates a more inclusive environment and prepares students for the real world—one where if they have questions about a problem, they can look it up, take their time, and iterate before finding an answer or solution.