12 December 2005

English Exams, the Medium, and the Message

It is end of term in high schools, and my daughter is once again preparing for that unique Foucauldian form of discipline known as exam time. As it turns out, the English exam will prove to be particularly problematic for her for a reason that is decidedly, if not ironically, McLuhanesque.

Unlike me, who graduated both high school and (undergrad) university before the advent of word processing, my daughter learned to compose text directly onto a computer. More than spell check, she has full access to a thesaurus - which she learned to use in the third grade - countless editing and revision opportunities, and a particular tactile relationship with the written word that is percussive in typing keyboarding, as opposed to legato in cursive script.

Unfortunately, the English exam is a hand-written essay. In her last test (that consisted of an essay question), she found herself unable to shepherd her thoughts to the paper, because of what she reported as a type of disconnection between her mind and the pen. Further, she spent too much time sans thesaurus trying to think of just the right word to express the nuance she wanted, and too much time revising the opening paragraph to get it just so. She ran out of time.

There is clearly a cognitive effect of composing on a computer keyboard that is different than composing with pen and paper. They are two different media, and we should expect there to be two different effects - two different messages. I notice this myself, using pen and paper for more "artistic" or "creative" aspects of my writing - outlining, constructing an argument - and keyboard for the actual production. Because I am aware of ground effects, I experience two different aspects of cognition when I use the two different media, and I use which ever medium is most appropriate for the specific cognitive effect I want to create in myself.

Now consider the exam. In addition to the student's command of the content to be tested as figure, the exam is also testing the student's facility with the (hidden) ground of the writing medium. Ironically, the student who has trained herself to do the things good writers do - select the right words to convey the right effects, revise and edit - is at a decided disadvantage in the exam. Teachers must become aware of all that is being tested, and decide if the exam as it is administered is truly an appropriate test.

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1 comment:

Sean Smith said...

Great post Mark....I hope that this makes into one of the teacher's union rags so that an "educated adult" is telling them things that they don't want to hear from the kiddies.