No Tests? College's Students Must Relearn How to Learn

Elizabeth Fleming of Gaithersburg works on a paper last month after a class at St. John's College in Annapolis, where classes emphasize discussion rather than memorization.
Elizabeth Fleming of Gaithersburg works on a paper last month after a class at St. John's College in Annapolis, where classes emphasize discussion rather than memorization. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006

By the end of last year, Elizabeth Fleming had taken the SAT, the PSAT, four AP exams and seven IB exams. At Richard Montgomery High School, her classmates agonized over the scores they needed to get into a good college, and the entire jittery month of May was spent cramming for exams.

This year, she got a culture shock.

Fleming enrolled at St. John's College, a tiny liberal arts school in Annapolis where scores are irrelevant: no exams to speak of, and no grades unless students request them.

She went from one extreme to another. In a country where "benchmarking" and "high-stakes testing" continue to be buzzwords, many Washington area high schools stand out for their competitiveness, their emphasis on testing and the stress students feel to get good numbers. "It escalates every year," independent college counselor Shirley Bloomquist said.

College is a change for most students, a shift from memorization to analysis, from weekly did-you-do-the-homework quizzes to weighty final papers. "In this era of No Child Left Behind, these students that will be coming to college are tested within an inch of their lives so regularly and so intensely," said John Bader, associate dean for academic programs and advising at Johns Hopkins University, who is co-writing a book on admissions and success.

Some college departments, such as political science, do not give college credit for AP scores, because the tests are mostly multiple choice. In many college courses, Bader said, "Most of what you learn is that there is no clear answer. There is no right or wrong. Yet when you test all the time, you're of course suggesting there is."

For freshmen such as Fleming who are whipsawed from pressure-cooker, high-achieving high schools to colleges that take a longer-term, more philosophical view of learning, the first semester is an education in itself.

Almost all have to learn a new way of learning. Without scores, they have to decide: Can they progress without measurement? Or is it possible to measure the things that really matter?

'The Weird School'

Fleming was tired of memorizing facts and strategizing for tests and listening to everyone obsess about grades. She knew St. John's was going to be a drastic change -- maybe too drastic.

"It gets made fun of a lot," she said at the end of the summer. "My friends call it 'the weird school' -- a lot of them think it doesn't do anything in terms of getting you a job. They just think it's silly."

On the first day of the fall semester, professors -- called tutors -- crisscrossed the brick walkways on the Annapolis campus with academic robes floating out behind them. During convocation, Fleming listened to the president begin speaking in Greek, discuss Plato's dialogues and muse on how he does not really know what learning is. Socrates is compared to a torpedo fish, whose sting leaves people numb, realizing their own ignorance.

Older students and faculty nodded.

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