Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Memory Dump Answer

Recently, I’ve read some blogs (like here) that complain that high school students in the U.S. receive easy A’s and they are ill prepared for college life. I was a teaching assistant for 6 years and a grader for 2 years before that, so I know very well what these bloggers are talking about.

There is one particular complaint that I have, and I have read similar complaint from others: students give answers that are essentially memory dumps of information stored and not organized.

I’ll give a simple example to illustrate the point. A professor might ask a straightforward question: “The United States experienced a period of ‘Stagflation’ during the 1970’s. What is Stagflation and what caused it?” The student will give back the definition of Stagflation and then describe the oil shocks that happened. That should be the end of the answer. Maybe a better answer would include the loose money policies of the Fed at that time, but basically, that’s enough. But the student is just getting started. She might go on to talk about WIN buttons, gas lines, Watergate, disco fever, bell bottoms, Patti Hearst, and basically anything else that happened to get mentioned in the professor’s lecture.

Why do students tend to give these long-winded confusing, sometimes-contradictory answers? They learn from high school that the teacher always gave full marks if the answer contained the phrase he was searching for and generous partial credit if the answer at least said a lot of vaguely reasonable things. In short: more is better. It cannot hurt you to dump more of your memory onto the page. Organization and coherency of thought are not expected in high school, they just want to see if you remembered the facts. And teachers are lazy: they don’t really read, they skim. If you skim, you ignore the irrelevant.

When these students get to college, they encounter lots of graders like me: people who worked very hard to get good grades and weren’t about to give full marks for a mess of an answer. That first semester in college is often a rude shock for many students. They always complained. I would try to be patient, sympathetic, and kind but I would convey a simple truth: “You’re not in high school anymore.”


  • Of course, there is no grade-inflation in colleges.

    I will give credit to encyclopaedic knowledge. It shows an ability connect a lot of things together. This is something missing in todays run for specialisation. Specialists tend to lose the bigger picture. A lot of policy failures can be traced to this.

    yum yum

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:13 PM  

  • Michael,

    So true. In high school, my classmates used to write pages and pages of BS when short paragraph answers were asked for. After the exams, they would ask each other how long their answers were, and whoever wrote the most would immediately believe that they would earn the best grade. Unfortunately, most of the times this was actually true. My high school teachers, spare a few, were terrible. After two years in college, I can probably teach better than a lot of them.


    By Blogger Vikram A., at 12:13 PM  

  • hehe.....more memories.....

    When I TA'd, i'd kill useless, rambling answers....and a lot of students were very pissed with my grading (got the "lowest" rating as a TA for that course). So the next time I TA'd, I did what any TA did......gave them good grades, and presto, my ratings were sky-rocketing!

    But what's funnier is that some students tend to continue doing this in Grad school....even in our PhD qualifiers. Now here, your "answers" ARE READ :-))

    I guess they learnt the hard way. :-)

    By Blogger Sunil, at 1:02 PM  

  • Hi Vikram and Sunil (and yum yum?)
    Vikram: You're being modest, you could teach better than those teachers when you were still in high school I'm sure.

    Sunil: You remind me of one thing I hated about being a TA: being graded by the ingrates in my class. How unfair! Mostly, I did not care too much but one quarter I got called into the DuGS office and had to promise I would ship up or else... lose my TA!

    That quarter I really changed... for the worse. I just basically solved the students homework in class for each recitation. It was ridiculous, but my recitation became enormously popular (hey, I could really do those problems well you know) and my evaluations made an enormous improvement.

    On the other hand, the next year I was the graduate TA. I was the guy who translated Prof. Prescott's (Nobel prize) ramblings into English. I really felt the love that quarter.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:42 PM  

  • I have a theory about regurgitated answers. First it has to do with the currentl belief that knowledge equals education--which is not necessarily true. Granted, knowedge is necessary for an education but it is not the only thing.

    The other failing of most schools, including colleges, is that we don't require students to think or make connections. I think more college exams should be like law school exams. In law school, students are presented with a fact pattern or scenario and aksed to identifiy and discuss the legal issues. Thus the knowledge acquired in reading and lectures had to be APPLIED to scenarios. Thus the knowledge of hte law is clearly tested, but also the critical thinking skills of the student are tested.

    By Blogger Matt Johnston, at 8:36 AM  

  • My gpa learned the hard way in my first year in college that brain dumps are the way to go. I had gone from a high school with only 1 AP class offered to an Ivy for college, and my grades on tests had gone from getting A's in my sleep, to C's and sometimes D's.

    I assumed that I was just not "prepared" for college, but I thought I should talk to my professors and TA's and ask what the problem was. Their answers all plainly stated that the essays were far too well done; they wanted a list (in sentence form) of every bit of info they had given us during the lectures- nothing more.

    So I started attacking tests by memorizing a list of every topic we'd touched on in class and writing it down when the test began, restating the question as a declaration, and writing two sentences about each topic from the list.

    After that I became a nearly straight A student sadly.

    By Anonymous Cole, at 11:13 AM  

  • I had a very innovative teacher in my grad school who heavily penalized superfluous information. I think that is a great idea.

    I myself was a culprit of "memory dump" (I like to call it information dump) in my high school and undergrad. That was usually because I didn't know the right way to answer a question and would put down all those I thought came close.

    I hope a PhD degree has changed that, but then I am not too sure. :-)

    By Anonymous Niket, at 2:09 PM  

  • Cole,
    Based on my experience (5 years) as a teaching/grading assistant, its quite contrary to that. For average and below students, that strategy helps, because we usually look for something correct in the answers to give grace points. But for average+ students, the extra bit almost always hurts.

    Of course, a majority of classes I TAed had a LOT of math and less room for "subjective" answers. But even open ended questions (and there were a number of those too) would be graded in a similar fashion.

    Related: I reproduced a piece published in Atlanta Journal and Constitution by Prof Neitzel on focussing on the need to think rather than grades (SAT scores). Here is the link:

    By Anonymous Niket, at 2:16 PM  

  • One of our testing/grading techniques is to take off points for too many answers. If three examples are requested, and the student gave four, he loses points.

    By Blogger muse, at 10:58 PM  

  • Hi Matt, Cole, Niket, and Muse
    Matt: I think the quality of the education is only as good as the quality of the testing/grading: you get what you test (if that!).

    Cole: What college did you go to? Unfortunately, it seems your tuition was wasted.

    Niket and Muse: penalizing "superfluous" information in an answer is one way to keep test answers focussed.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:13 AM  

  • Even at the PhD level there is very little in "organization" and "logical presentation" dept. My hubby's major problems (in her dissertation) are endless repeats of the same idea in different words (often to fit a whole new set of references!) and very poor organization and sequence of presentation. The most annoying (in that it takes most time to rewrite) is the presentation of the argument first and then a litany of backing evidence, etc. instead of a logical "unfolding" of the argument followed by the money-line. We have terms now - she "pounds on it" and I organize it, she "beats some theory in" and I organize that, etc. etc. fun fun fun.

    I have a history teacher in HS that made us write an essay for EACH class (4 days/week). How she managed to correct those with very meaningful comments in RED ink I will never know... but I cherish that experience.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:22 PM  

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