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Process-oriented Learning in Secondary Education

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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Ever since elementary school, we were always told to show our work, so that in the event we got the answer wrong, we could get some partial credit. Documenting your thought processes is most prevalent in the STEM fields, where exams are designed to assess topics requiring some element of computation and critical thinking.

The idea of receiving partial credit is great, not just because it helps students score better on exams, but because it encourages students to try to show what they know. However, despite the consensus among instructors that the process should matter more than the answer, in many cases, getting the answer wrong can still cost you a hefty amount of points. Sometimes, that can make the difference between letter grades.

Now yes, almost correct is not the same thing as correct, so the final answer is not irrelevant. However, no matter how well a student understands the process towards solving a problem, or no matter how ingenious their approach, there will always be the possibility of stupid or careless errors, ones that reflect the student’s humanity rather than their understanding.

It’s a tragic tale, one we see all too often in high school math and science classes: a student takes a test and attempts a problem, doing every step flawlessly up until the last one, where a negative sign gets dropped or the quantity two plus three magically becomes six. Thus, the final answer is incorrect, and points are deducted, sometimes in outrageously large quantities. Unlike in college, where professors understand that the purpose of a course is to teach you how to think about something, high school instructors are more focused on teaching you how to do something, and when the mechanics of a problem are the primary focus, the answer has a much higher value.

The issue is that there’s no way to eliminate the risk of careless mistakes aside from checking over your work countless times, which is something that you often can’t do under a time constraint. And it’s not the same as a failure in understanding, where the student fails in their application or recollection of a concept or method; that can be rectified with increased studying and practice. This narrow mindset of always trying to get the right answer leads to students being more preoccupied with doing everything correctly than comprehending everything correctly. Consequently, when the real goal is to become more agile and adaptive problem solvers, they’re being shortchanged.

In the real world, problems don’t have nicely predetermined solutions; otherwise, they wouldn’t be worth addressing. The emphasis here is entirely on what you know and how you can apply it, not if you can crunch numbers properly like a computer (we have calculators for a reason). By forcing students to waste time muddling through complex — but pointless — algebra or computing astronomical sums by hand, instructors are doing them a disservice by wasting their time, time that could otherwise be spent delving into new and intriguing concepts or going beyond the scope of the class. Students who receive this enrichment are better prepared for the struggles of post-secondary education and beyond, whereas those who do not find it difficult to grapple with deviations from the standard of perfection.

Some will argue that the repetition of basics is important, especially for people that find learning challenging. By no means am I advocating that slower students should be left behind in favor of pandering to the more accelerated ones, or vice versa; rather, I believe that all students can benefit from more process-oriented learning and more focus on mastering the material rather than their exams. Already, there’s been some substantial progress made on this front, with most tests requiring a written explanation for an answer or moving towards including questions that ask students to describe a certain problem-solving process rather than explicitly implementing it.

The whole point of a good education system is to turn students into effective problem solvers, and that process really takes off right around high school. As the world becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, so too do the challenges in every realm of inquiry. It is imperative that we arm students not only with the correct knowledge but also the correct mindset for learning. Education is a lifelong process, and it’s not about what you do at the beginning or end, but at every step along the way.