Many students in college and professional schools across the country are headed into Spring Break this weekend. When they return, they will begin the downhill slalom to final exams that is the month of April. Perhaps this is a good time to pause to consider what final exams and grades could be, if not what they are now.
Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of the term “examination,” some of them helpful to shed light on the subject, some of them not. The first—“the act of looking at something closely and carefully”—perhaps can be applied to a college or graduate school exam. Exams that might test the breadth of someone’s knowledge, and not its depth, would not qualify. What about “a close and careful study of someone or something to find signs of illness or injury?” Perhaps one could say a typical exam looks for weakness, but not illness or injury. Let’s leave that to the doctors. What about “a test to show a person’s progress, knowledge, or ability?” Shouldn’t this definition serve as the closest thing to what we are doing when we conduct examinations of our students? And are the three essentially interchangeable: “progress,” “knowledge,” and “ability”? I think not. This leads us to assess (examine, if you will) the point of administering exams in colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools, like law schools. (I teach in the last of these three).
If we start at first principles, such an assessment of exams should lead us back to the purpose of an education. Are we attempting to impart knowledge, or, are we teaching students how to learn so that they can explore the sources of knowledge they will come across throughout their lives and careers? Are we giving them an answer, or are we teaching them how to find answers, to learn how to solve problems? Are we teaching them what to draw, or paint, or write, or to learn the art of creation so that they might pursue creative endeavors on their own?
Depending on our approach, do we run the risk of imposing what Stanford’s Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” on our students should we pursue the first of the options described above, as opposed to a “growth mindset” if we pursue the second?
Dweck, a Yale-educated psychologist now on the faculty at Stanford, has shown that, depending on one’s mindset—fixed or growth—one can be more successful, more open-minded, more willing to take on challenges, more resilient, and, in the end, happier. The fixed mindset individual is obsessed with recognition, is daunted by difficult tasks, and is afraid of extending him or herself in risky endeavors for fear of failure, or, what’s worse to the fixed mindset person, being seen as a failure. The person with a growth mindset takes on new challenges, looks at failure as an opportunity to learn, and constantly looks for ways to improve and develop.
In the film “A Beautiful Mind,” the hero, who, we ultimately learn, is beset by schizophrenia, notices a colleague being acknowledged for his life’s work. When asked what he sees, he says “recognition,” which, the hero believes, he deserves as well, even though he has not accomplished much yet in his still young career. A senior colleague responds: “try seeing achievement.”
The fixed mindset person is focused on recognition, on being seen as smart or accomplished, without necessarily putting in the hard work to earn such respect. The growth mindset person looks not for recognition, but to achieve, to put in the work necessary to get the job done, and to improve and grow as a person. Moreover, the growth mindset person knows that hard work is the route to achievement, and even recognition, whereas the fixed mindset person expects such recognition to be handed to him or her, regardless of the effort. In fact, such a person thinks effort actually shows weakness, and is a threat to one’s sense of smarts, innate ability, standing, or power.
So what does all of this have to do with administering exams to students? Well, what is that we are truly testing? Are we attempting to identify who is smart, or who has learned the most, who has digested the material or who can take the knowledge they have learned and run the farthest and the fastest with it?
Moreover, are we developing true strength of mind and will that will help carry our students into successful futures, wherever their hearts may take them? In “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Here’s How,” Daniel Coyle describes the latest research on the functioning of the human brain and identifies the brain chemistry and infrastructure that is nurtured through deep practice: practice that involves a certain degree of repetition, reviewing and correcting mistakes immediately, and developing a strong knowledge base that accelerates learning and mastery. As Coyle points out, as football fans’ jaws dropped when witnessing New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. make a truly astonishing three-finger grab of a pass last season, what they didn’t know is that he practices making such catches all the time, over and over again.
One of the courses I teach is an introductory course on litigation to first-year law students. For these students, some have been exposed to court processes before coming to law school either because they have parents who are lawyers or they have worked in law offices in advance of coming to law school. As a result, some of the lessons might come more easily to them. Others know very little about how courts work; this will require a whole new vocabulary for the subject matter of the class, including unfamiliar terms like “joinder,” “res judicata,” and “forum non conveniens.”
Unlike some first-year classes, where students are given one big test at the end of the semester (sometimes one big exam at the end of two semesters), I give students multiple points of assessment, administering multiple “mid-terms,” sometimes trying to hammer home key concepts by asking questions on the exams that look very much like questions I have given the students previously. I do this as a way for them to engage in the “deep practice” Coyle describes. For a portion of each exam, I test students using different permutations of problems that are similar to ones they have seen before, hoping that they will start to develop that brain chemistry that helps create well-honed neural pathways that will fire sharp and true when my students are out in the world as practicing attorneys.
Unfortunately, our “American Idol” culture glorifies winner-take-all approaches through which an individual’s perceived innate talent is assessed in a 90-second, make-or-break, thumbs up or thumbs down referendum on one’s perceived fixed value. A couple of years ago, musician-songwriter Dave Grohl was quoted as railing against this type of culture. He decried the American Idol approach, sounding a lot like Carol Dweck (but with somewhat saltier language, which I’ve sanitized): “You stand in line for eight…hours with 800 people at a convention center and… then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not …good enough.” For Grohl, “[m]usicians should go to a yard sale and buy [an] old…drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll…start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana.”
This is how I learned to play the bass guitar as a teenager, playing in a string of terrible rock bands and one thoroughly bad punk rock band (not bad meaning good, but bad meaning bad). We were all awful, and we had the time of our lives. Did we become Nirvana? No. But it really didn’t matter.
Educators should do their best to instill in their students the willingness to take whatever raw ability they might have and develop skills and expertise through deep practice, innovative thinking, and courageous conviction. We’re not talking about outside the box thinking; our students need to understand that—sometimes—there is no box. Educators should teach students to climb to new heights of their own choosing, and not be measured according to some pre-determined, innate skill at climbing. Yes, in many professions, there are hard truths, and there are skills that one must develop to excel. But what one does with those truths and those skills is the metric we should use to assess our students, not whether, in one instant flash of brilliance, or because of one unfortunate misstep, they rise or fall, shine or flame out.