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The Getting of Wisdom

September 10, 2011 1 comment

There is an entire literature devoted to the importance of students developing understanding and taking a deep approach to their learning yet in Accounting and Finance, textbooks and teaching are all too often focussed on providing technical knowledge. Hence, it is hardly surprising that students view learning through the lens of fact accumulation. They read fact-focused materials and attend a lecture that often emphasises facts. In the short time of the average lecture, we know we are providing students with key knowledge to be supplemented by their additional reading, thinking, exploring, questioning etc done outside the classroom, but do our students know this? Moreover, do they know how to do it?

Although the teaching and learning literature discusses understanding, in assessment tasks, we often require an additional step: we expect students to demonstrate wisdom. So we teach knowledge, expect understanding and assess wisdom.

These words are not synonyms.

Knowledge is knowing what is and is not.

Understanding is knowing why it is or is not.

Wisdom is knowing how to use understanding to selectively apply knowledge.

We give our students knowledge so they will achieve understanding and demonstrate wisdom. There is a fundamental problem here. We expect our students to leap tall buildings at a single bound as they progress from knowledge to understanding and then finally to the holy grail of wisdom, often within the narrow confines of a teaching semester. Those who fail to make the leap are penalised by low marks or perhaps even failure. But it is their failure or ours?

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Are “cheat sheets” useful for students?

When I allowed students to take cheat sheets into exams, I thought I was helping them.  Now, I am not so sure.

My reason for allowing cheat sheets was that it helped students structure their revision for the exam.  By having to compress the subject down to two A4 pages of hand writing, students were encouraged to summarise the unit and to select the most important elements to put on the cheat sheets.

I have not allowed students to use cheat sheets for a few years.  I discussed the reasons why in my last post.  A number of my colleagues still allow students to use cheat sheets.  I have marked some of the exams when cheat sheets were allowed and I have reviewed the marking on other exams when cheat sheets were allowed.  What I have observed is that students can only answer an exam question when they have the answer on their cheat sheets; if its not there then they do not know how to answer.

One of my colleagues had a great example of this.  One of the tasks second-year accounting students find most challenging is to reconcile profit to operating cash flow.  In lectures and tutorials the more complex elements of this reconciliation are stressed.  In the exam, my colleague set a question asking students to demonstrate one of the simpler elements of this process.  Many students could not get the correct answer and wrote a solution for one of the more complex elements instead; the conclusion we drew was that they had a worked example of the complex elements on their cheat sheets and they copied it into their examination book.

When I reflected on this, I pondered whether allowing cheat sheets was encouraging surface learning rather than the deep learning we should be seeking (Biggs 2003 Teaching for Quality Learning at University 2nd Ed.).  If this is the case then students would be better off (in terms of their learning) if cheat sheets were not permitted.

I have not searched the literature for any research on this.  If any readers are aware of any research I would appreciate being directed to it.

A colleague had a different perspective on cheat sheets; he argued that students will take cheat sheets into the exam whether they are allowed on not.  The only difference is where the cheat sheets are stored; on their desk or in their underwear.  Allowing cheat sheets stopped the feigned incontinence and diarrhoea.  He argued that honest students were at a disadvantage if cheat sheets were banned; allowing cheat sheets levelled the playing field.

I am not sure if he is right and, if he is, if allowing cheat sheets is the best way to minimise cheating.  I would appreciate hearing others’ views and experiences on this.