The main challenge of teaching freshmen is, for me, having to struggle against the unhealthy learning practices students bring with them from high school. They expect to be spoon-fed large doses of information that they will be able to memorize and reproduce during exams and mini-quizzes. Writing an essay or making a presentation for them means finding some loosely connected facts on the Internet and then regurgitating them orally or in writing. They prefer PowerPoint presentations to lectures because each new slide gives them a chance to do what they love doing: copying the information from the slides into their notebooks.
To say all this is frustrating for a college teacher is to say nothing. In my course on Hispanic Civilization, I have gone to extreme lengths to wake the students from this note-taking stupor. I have made very provocative statements about all kinds of issues but, for the most part, they just write it down and then repeat word for word during exams.
All exams in this course are analytical and not factual. All students are required to do is provide their own opinions on the issues I propose. For the majority of students this turns out to be a very daunting exercise. The very idea of analysis terrifies them. They'd much rather memorize long lists of dates and names than offer their opinions on politics, history, and art.
I have heard horror stories about the damage done in the last decade to secondary education by making learning test-oriented instead of aimed at developing actual thinking capacities in the students. Now I am seeing the results of these efforts and, boy, are they sad.
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