Student to profs: Don’t force us to take tests online

(freepik.com)
(freepik.com)

Kendall Breitman is a senior at American University in Washington, D.C. She is 22 years old and originally from Havertown, Pa., right outside of West Philadelphia. She went to school at Haverford High School (not one of the newer high schools that give their students computers to work with) and then went on to American to double major in print journalism and law & society. She will graduate in May and wants to be a reporter. (No, journalism is not dead.)

I heard Kendall talking on a panel recently to a crowd of English professors and others interested in getting students to read, and she said something that surprised some of the audience. She told them not to force students to take exams on the computer if they don’t want to because not all young people like to learn or be tested that way. One professor said he was planning to do that but after hearing her, decided against it.

I asked her why she prefers learning and being tested the old-fashioned way and here’s what she told me:

You’ve been outspoken about the issue of taking tests on the computer. A lot of professors are moving toward digital-only tests. Why do you oppose it?

I’m not completely opposed to digital tests, but my opposition kicks in when it becomes required to take tests online instead of a choice between printed tests and digital. I think that everyone learns a little bit differently, and just because it seems like millennials are reacting well to reading Facebook and Twitter and even news through a digital platform does not particularly mean that millennials are able to learn well online. I mean, just the other day I had a class where a guest professor spoke on how reading off of screens keeps you from retaining as much information as you would from print, and then in the next class our professor assigned an online midterm. One day in my literature class my professor got angry with some students because we didn’t seem to be reading our texts closely enough and some students didn’t remember key information. Maybe this would have been different if the 20-page reading wasn’t given to us as a PDF.

If we know that digital isn’t helping some students learn, then I can’t understand why students are now expected to learn this way, and not only to learn this way, but to be tested this way. It is an automatic disadvantage for some, and for someone who takes grades very seriously this disadvantage can be frustrating, especially when we aren’t given a choice.

As a 22-year-old who grew up with the Internet, my entire life has become digital, but that doesn’t mean that I want it that way and that doesn’t mean that I want my education to be that way.

Do you like to read books on a screen or on old-fashioned paper?

I’m an old-fashion paper book person. I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t plan on it. On the other hand, my parents are now onto their second e-readers and none of their three children have ever owned an e-book or have even asked for one.

If you have never had an e reader, how do you know you wouldn’t like it?

I don’t have an e-reader, but both of my 59-year-old parents do (also should be noted that neither of my two brothers have an e-reader, only my parents do in my family). I’ve used their e-readers a few times to read books that they have already downloaded and just didn’t really like it because I couldn’t mark the pages or write my thoughts in the margins. I also like to see how much of a book I have left to read by looking at the pages, not a timeline on the side of the screen.

Although I have never had an e-reader, I’ve done a few readings on my computer for class (when professors assign their readings as scan online) and found it to be particularly hard, especially for academic reading. That’s when I like to highlight and write questions in the margins and that form of annotation cannot be replicated by an e-reader. I feel that I absorb less information from the text and cannot really go back to see where I had questions or what I thought was important.

Related: Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 7