Scantron is Death

Card XIII, "Death" from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, paired with a small Scantron form and a cup from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

It’s the week after finals and the campus is quiet. I came in today for a meeting, and after the meeting I walked over to the University Student Union. Outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf there I ran into a fellow faculty member wading his way through a big stack of Green Books.

My colleague told me that he never uses Scantrons, that he just can’t do it. Still, it’s understandable that with a large class: 50, 100, 200 students, that an exam format that lets you zap points instantly from form to gradebook is attractive. It is also understandable that a university with tens of thousands of students would have large General Education (GE) classes. And understandable that any academic department might run large GE classes to help “pay” for their small upper division classes.

Understandable, but problematic. Talking with my colleague today I realized something that I think I’ve always known, but never said in so few words before:

Scantron is death.

Students don’t necessarily hate Scantrons, I think they sometimes like the regularity and predictability of the format and the grading. That doesn’t mean we aren’t killing them, and killing education. Cats like milk, right? Well, it’s true, cats do like milk. But it turns out that most cats are lactose intolerant. You might think you’re doing something nice for a cat, but it turns out you’re not.

The spectrum of students who show up as university freshmen is vast. Some are excited and energetic. Some are unengaged and not even sure they want to be here. Some are over-prepared. Some are under-prepared. Whether a student is excited to be here or apathetic, our job should be to help them reach the next level. Not to bludgeon the motivation out of them with dull hammers like Scantron forms.

Education should be about developing critical thinking, about learning how to learn, and about solving problems. None of which is easily measured with a multiple choice quiz question. Students might not love writing long essays in exam Green Books, but at least it is possible to write a Green Book essay you are proud of. It’s impossible to bubble in multiple choice answers in a way that makes you proud.

(unless you’ve decided to use your Scantron form to make art instead of answer questions)

Sure Upper Division courses might have plenty of Science Labs and Art Studios where students can explore and create, but what about Lower Division? What about General Education? Plenty of students think that GE is a waste of their time? Is this because they’re so obsessed with being a Computer Scientist or Business Marketer that they can’t focus on anything else?


But I see a tremendous number of Undeclared students. They can’t be obsessed with their major if they don’t even have one yet, can they? Do students think GE is a waste of time because they don’t care about the diversity of human experience? Or because we, The University, sometimes inadvertently treat GE as busy work. As courses that don’t have to be active learning or project based, but can simply be lecture classes with Scantron exams.

Could it be that we’re taking the youngest, freshest, and most impressionable students on campus, and bludgeoning them with Sage-on-the-stage lectures and Scantron tests of paying attention and memorization instead of inspiring them with the possibilities of life on earth? A university education is a privilege and an adventure. If students don’t feel like it is, we’ve all failed.

If there’s any way to have smaller classes, we’ve got to do it. And even if our circumstances make that difficult, we’ve got to retire the Scantron form. And more than the form, we’ve got to retire the idea that what students should be learning can be evaluated with multiple choice questions. I don’t care about what prerequisites students don’t have yet, I want to see students in all classes setting their own goals, defining problems they care about, and addressing them with projects that surpass faculty expectations. In many ways our students understand 2016 better than we do. Maybe it’s time we start empowering them to teach us.

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