Saturday, July 2, 2011

A primer on education and reforming the baccalaureat

I've been discussing about education with a friend of mine recently, and I thought I should write a couple of things.

First, on education. My based-on-no-evidence belief is that there are two important characteristics an education system should feature:

  • Repetition: The teachings should be repeated over and over, and the exams should test on the same thing over and over. A recent study indeed showed that repeated teaching and repeated retrieval was quite awesome: 
Repeated retrieval with long intervals between each test produced a 200% improvement in long-term retention relative to repeated retrieval with no spacing between tests. However, there was no evidence that a particular relative spacing schedule (expanding, equal, or contracting) was inherently superior to another
As an example, in The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the success Blue's Clues, an educational TV show for kids, and explains that "Nickelodeon runs the same episode for five straight days". In each episode, a dog finds clues to an enigma, and children usually try to find the solution as the clues come along. The show proved to be even more popular than Sesame Street
  • Involvement: A lecture does not work, a high level of interaction is necessary. Practically, it also means that I like the anglo-saxon system where lectures serve as support and a book is usually required to work by yourself on the thing you're studying. I think involvement is something that everybody mentions, but I thought I would write it here. Apparently, a large body of research has been focused on this since Astin(1984) and his theory of involvment Again, Gladwell mentions that the implication of children is primordial in their learning through the TV shows: "the child at home is given the opportunity to shout out an answer on his own. Sometimes, Steve[the host] will play dumb"
What does it mean practically? The leak of one math exercise of the French baccalaureat(an exam at the end of high school) restarted a debate on whether the "bac" was actually relevant, or if it should be replaced by, say, continuous evaluation.

My prior on this is that continuous evaluation is the first best, notably given the two priorities I mentioned above. A single examination at the end of high school is not the best way to test people's knowledge. I found this nice Calvin&Hobbes cartoon to summarize the point:



Now, what is the goal of the Bac? What we want is to test people's knowledge. As a consequence, the Bac is used as the selection criterion for universities for instance. It also means that it has to be comparable across students so that the test yields the same information for everybody.

So, the Bac gives a signal of one student's "ability" or, more generally, "type". The result is a signal to companies and universities that you are competent. Now, the problem with a signal is that it is not perfect. For instance, you could have thought that Michael Bay just made a mistake with Transformers 1, but with 2 other Transformers you know far better how good he is.  A signal based on a single evaluation is a really noisy signal. To get rid of the potential large errors on any single signal(e.g. you just eat some E-Coli infested sprouts just before your exam), you want to use multiple evaluations.

Hence, not only multiple evaluations give a better signal of one's competence, but as I mentioned above, multiple evaluations are actually better for anybody's knowledge. If we want to test people, but also make them more knowledgeable, multiple evaluations seem the way to go. That's why I think it is the first best, and that's why I think the only reason the Bac still holds is because we're afraid of touching universality and the ability to compare.

The main issue I've seen on forums and such is that if we only look at the grades given by professors to students during their high-school, we'll have problems because:
- students and families can make arrangements with professors,
- schools are not equal, and grades obtained at one school are not comparable with grades obtained at another school.

The issue here is that people define continuous examination as considering the grades that one gets at his or her school by his or her professor during the year. But continuous evaluation, for me, just means a system where the student is evaluated continuously. That is, a regular evaluation at the scale of the department or the region is also a continuous evaluation. Moreover, evaluations at this scale should get rid of the problems of student/professor arrangements, or problems inherent to particular schools. More generally, what you want is to design a system where the scale enables you to get rid of the professor/school idiosyncrasies.

In any case, I think the debate on the Bac vs. continuous evaluation in France won't go forward if we keep this narrow definition of continuous evaluation. We can and should devise a better system where students are evaluated more frequently, because that'll improve retention by students and that'll improve our evaluation of students.

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