Column #6, posted 6/18/99
The Professor Fails The Test
OK. Let's face it. No matter what I say about measurement, there will be those who want to measure anyway. They will want to measure for the same reason they have always wanted to measure -- not because they want to know if Johnny has learned but because they want to know if Johnny knows more than Billy. Measurement has always been about competition. Companies want to hire the best person. Schools want to accept the best students. We care about grades because we want to know who won. No matter how much this is a bad thing for education, it will be very hard to convince all those people who are so heavily bought into this model of education that this is a really bad idea. Maybe these tests can be saved, or we can devise some new ones. It is hard to imagine that we can change the system since politicians love those tests so much.
So, with that idea in mind, I thought I'd look at some AP tests. I purchased the books kids buy when they want to practice for the advanced placement exams. These are the tests that get high school students college credits, so they matter to kids. I didn't know very many answers at all in any exam. I had been a math major and had indeed taken (and done well on) the AP calculus exam, but I had trouble remembering what calculus was about. Yes, I was a math major in college, but it has been a long time since I took an integral. So, I couldn't do the math. The history exam, which maybe I should know because I still read history quite regularly, was too hard for me. It was full of names of treaties I vaguely recall and the names of various Acts of Congress I had long since forgotten (if indeed I ever knew them).
I was finding this pretty frustrating. I hate testing of course, but I am a professor and should know some of this stuff. Then I discovered that there was an AP exam in Psychology. I didn't know that. I am officially a professor of psychology and have been one for twenty five years, so maybe I could pass that one. Below are some of the questions I found. I am now going to take this test in front of you -- that is, I am not going to edit my answers or look up the right answers. However, I am going to comment on the questions. Bear in mind that although I am a professor of psychology (among other things) I have no degrees in psychology. But I did take maybe five or ten psychology courses when I was a student. (I have written quite a few books on various subjects in psychology, however.)
Here are the first 35 questions from the test.
1. The retina
(A) is the round opening in the center of the eye through which light passes.
(B) is the photosensitive curtain of nerve cells located at the back of the eye.
(C) bends and focuses light rays.
(D) protects the internal parts of the eye.
(E) is the muscle holding the pupil in place.
Ok, I should know this. Maybe A. But why is this on this test? Is this part of psychology? Actually, I know (because I am a professor) that at faculty meetings you can find people who work on vision. So they would know this, of course. On the other hand, it still isn't psychology.
2. Which of the following is the most widely accepted significance level for demonstrating significance in experimental results?
I haven't a clue. Psychologists do statistics, in fact they revere statistics, but I don't do that stuff, never did, never will. Perhaps I should know this. But why should high school students know it? I can tell you the answer that your average psychology professor would give to this question: "They should know it because they will need to do experiments and read about experiments and most experiments use statistics as a means of measuring the value of the data received." But, I know that that is not why a high school student or even a freshman in college takes psychology. They want to know how the mind works and why their parents are so screwed up. Knowledge of statistics is really not relevant unless you actually intend to do experiments and that wouldn't happen until many courses after the first one. So, again, I wonder why this stuff is on this test. The answer is that the teacher was teaching it. And why was the teacher teaching that? Because he knew it would be on the test.
3. In auditory sensation, pitch
(A) is the only variable by which we distinguish sounds.
(B) is closely related to the loudness of sound.
(C) is closely related to the frequency of sound.
(D) is closely related to the intensity of sound.
(E) is measured in decibels.
This isn't a test in music, so again, I am wondering, why is this psychology? The answer is similar to the explanation for exam question 1: There are psychologists who study perception, This question is really asking for a definition, and is surely not psychology. My answer: don't have clue. I guess B.
4. Ivan P. Pavlov is famous for his research on
(A) teaching machines.
(B) perceptual learning.
(C) forward conditioning.
(D) classical conditioning.
(E) backward conditioning.
Hooray. Something I know. D. At least I am pretty sure. The fact is Pavlov was writing about teaching machines so A is right, but that's too subtle an idea for the test makers (although I do note that they put it in there as a distracter).
5. A stimulus that elicits a response before the experimental manipulation is a (an)
(A) response stimulus (RS).
(B) unconditioned stimulus (UCS).
(C) generalized stimulus (GS).
(D) conditioned stimulus (CS).
(E) specific stimulus (SS).
Oy. Who cares? Why would it matter what it's called? Wouldn't it be obvious from the context of anything I was reading? This could only matter for a test. Maybe B.
6. Erikson proposed that trust or mistrust develops during the
(A) muscular-anal stage.
(B) locomotor-genital stage.
(C) latency stage.
(D) oral-sensory stage.
(E) maturity stage.
Wow! This is great. They actually want you to know the theories of each different writer on clinical psychology? For God's sake, why? I am sure students want to know about mistrust, but do they need to know about Erikson? Is this so that they can cite his name and sound intelligent in doing so? I have never been all that interested in clinical psychology anyway, so I have no idea what the answer might be. Can't even guess...don't want to know.
7. One effect of anxiety on learning is
(A) the removal of mental blocks.
(B) a reduction in performance on difficult tasks.
(C) a reduction in the ability to discriminate clearly.
(D) more interference with familiar material than with new material.
(E) reduction in the ability to perform any task.
Ok. I am happy. People should know stuff like this. I like the idea that students would know how anxiety relates to learning. The problem is, I don't know the answer. I can guess though. I would guess that anxiety makes you learn less easily. Stands to reason that you might pay attention to stuff other than what you are trying to learn, right? So, I vote for that one. OK, which is it above? Uh oh. It isn't any of them. Three of the answers are about performance not learning. I am sure anxiety inhibits performance, so B, C and E are all right. Maybe D is the answer since it is the only one about learning and might even be true.
8. According to Carl Jung's personality theory, the terms "anima" and "animus" refer to
(A) the collective unconscious.
(B) the personal unconscious.
(C) feminine and masculine archetypes.
(D) the shadow archetypes.
(E) the animal instincts in man's unconscious.
Here we go again. I have actually read some Jung. Never cared for his terminology. I guess B.
9. Intelligence tests are not considered reliable
(A) at any age.
(B) before seven years of age.
(C) before puberty.
(D) before 20 years of age.
(E) none of the above.
I can't stand it. I need to look up the answer for this one. It is too ridiculous. Intelligence tests aren't reliable at all. They are a lot like this test. They prove nothing. So I looked it up and the answer is B. It says after the answer that the tests are reliable, but not accurate, a subtle distinction only a psychologist would love.
10. Physiologically, emotional responses take place
(A) in the brain.
(B) in the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
(C) in the muscles and internal organs.
(D) in the sympathetic nervous system.
(E) in all of the above.
Should a student know this? Yes, I think so. Do I know it? I think maybe E.
11. A "positively skewed" distribution is
(A) a distribution that has a few extremely high values.
(B) a distribution that has a few extremely low values.
(C) a flat distribution, with a wide dispersion of values.
(D) a distribution that is very peaked and leptokurtic.
(E) a distribution that is both flat and leptokurtic.
Here we go again. I don't know this. Students shouldn't have to know it either.
12. A few extreme scores in a distribution
(A) will affect the value of the median more than that of the mean.
(B) will affect the value of the mean more than that of the median.
(C) will affect the values of the mean and median equally.
(D) will affect the value of the mode more than that of the median.
(E) will affect neither the value of the mean nor the median.
Here come statistics again.
13. A psychologist wants to observe language development. He studies five children over a 10-year period. This psychologist is performing
(A) longitudinal study.
(B) case study.
(C) factor analysis.
(D) laboratory study.
(E) durational study.
All right. Language development. Something I know a lot about. I am ready. Uh oh. This isn't about that at all. It's about names and definitions again, but not about language development. A. At least I think so. I never heard of E. Is there such a thing? Does it matter?
14. By obtaining two scores for one subject with just one test, a researcher achieves
(A) test-retest reliability.
(B) alternate reliability.
(C) split-half reliability.
(D) parallel reliability.
(E) scorer reliability.
More statistics. I don't see any reliability here, but maybe that's just me.
15. The major affective disorders are characterized by
(A) extreme and inappropriate emotional responses.
(B) severe depression.
(C) withdrawal and emotional distortion.
(D) chronic experience of depression.
(E) delusional emotional experiences.
Well, now we are back in territory that probably relates to what students taking this course came to find out, so that's good. The only problem is that I can't tell the difference between the choices. It seems to me that they all could be right. I guess that this is another case of the test makers having a good time with some subtle distinction or other that doesn't matter to anyone. A seems right. B could be right but probably isn't always true. C could happen too. D probably is wrong because it's too specific, and E seems too much, but who knows? I suppose a good test taker would guess A, but as you might imagine, I was never a good test taker so I guess all of the above.
16. Which of the following problems would require divergent thinking?
(A) adding a column of numbers.
(B) deciding whether to turn left or right at an intersection while driving a car.
(C) choosing the best move in a card game.
(D) repairing a broken typewriter.
(E) (A) and (D).
Divergent thinking? Meaning thinking differently? What does this mean? Is this some weird definition they teach students to convince them that psychologists really understand thinking? I can tell you that psychologists barely have a clue how any of the above work, but I suppose they can give names to some stuff. So far, those names have eluded me, and I work on thinking. I guess D because it might require original thought, although, depending on the card game, C could be right, too.
17. In perceptual research, backward masking refers to
(A) inhibition of the detection of simple figures in the presence of emotional stimuli.
(B) an interfering stimulus that closely precedes presentation of the target stimulus.
(C) an interfering stimulus presented shortly after the target stimulus.
(D) a longer lasting interfering stimulus that is presented simultaneously with the brief target stimulus.
(E) none of the above.
I don't know. Don't care either. More definitions that any student will forget seconds after they take this test.
18. In sensory systems, a minimum difference between two stimuli is required before we can distinguish between them. This minimum threshold, which can be measured, is called the
(A) interstimulus difference (ISD).
(B) differential threshold (DL).
(C) signal detectability threshold (TSD).
(D) comparison stimulus threshold (CST).
(E) subdifferential threshold (SDL).
I am getting really tired of silly definitions, aren't you?
19. In perceiving the distance a sound has traveled, a person depends heavily upon
(A) loudness and intensity.
(C) brightness and hue.
Wow! C is a great answer, isn't it? I guess they are checking to see if you can read. Do you have to take psychology to guess A?
20. When light changes from bright to dim the iris of the eye
(C) remains the same.
(D) changes in color.
Oh God. What's an iris? The colored part no? D? More stuff that isn't about psychology.
21. Organization theory uses theories of reinforcement to increase worker efficiency and satisfaction. According to reinforcement theory, the best time to reward a worker is
(A) at the end of the year in the form of a bonus.
(C) when he first begins work in the company.
(D) immediately before a task is performed.
(E) immediately after a task has been performed.
Gotta love this one. At least it is relevant to actual life. That's the good news. The bad news is that any sentient being should be able to see that four of these answers are idiotic in context. Now, out of context we have a different story. All of them (well except never) might be good ideas after all.
22. In drug research, a control group, consisting of subjects administered a "fake" drug with no active ingredients, is usually included. This "fake" drug is known as a
(B) null drug.
(C) blind drug.
(C) null, dependent variable.
(E) none of the above.
This one is fun. Checking to see if we know the word "placebo" and then not putting it on the test. This question is really about the difference between recognition and recall memory but they left that out. Had they put "placebo" on the test everyone would recognize it so they wanted you to have to recall it. Cute.
23. According to Freud, a developmental halt due to frustration and anxiety is referred to as
(E) learned helplessness.
Well, B looks right to me but I don't really care what Freud called stuff. Maybe students should though. Familiarity with Freud seems to matter in our society.
24. The Interpretation of Dreams was written by
(A) Carl Jung.
(B) Sigmund Freud.
(C) Ernest Jones.
(D) Alfred Adler
(E) Carl Rogers.
The fact that I know this one (B) does not make this a legitimate question. Are we testing to see what students know about psychology or that they sound like they know about psychology?
25. Modeling is a technique used in
(A) behavior therapy.
(C) client-centered therapy
(E) rational-emotive therapy.
Wouldn't know. I wonder why a student should know.
26. Freud believed that the primary driving force in an individual's life was
(A) the superego.
(B) psychosexual development.
(C) sexual urge.
(C) bodily functions.
Freud liked sex, no? OK, C. Another dumb question.
27. "The aim of all life is death." This quote from Sigmund Freud's work refers to
(C) the struggle between Eros and Thanatos.
(D) the death instinct.
(E) reproduction, a pun on death as sexual orgasm.
Whoops. Sorry. Shouldn't have called the last one dumb. This one gets that prize. D? E? You gotta be kidding.
28. A between-subjects design is less efficient than a within-subjects design because
(A) it has more subjects.
(B) it has less validity.
(C) it is less reliable.
(D) it is not counterbalanced.
(E) it must deal with differences among subjects.
Experimental design is basically important if you are going to design an experiment. How many students in first year psychology are going to do that? Shouldn't they learn this stuff for real when they decide to do it for real? Until then, shouldn't they be learning about ideas and about how to think about psychological issues?
29. As an approach to personality research Gordon Allport favored
(A) nomothetic studies.
(B) nonparametric studies.
(C) ideagraphic studies.
(D) case conference studies.
(E) cross-cultural studies.
Again names and what they thought. I have no idea. I can't remember a thing about this guy.
30. The simplest measure of variability is the
(A) standard deviation.
More of that stuff. I still don't know.
31. Transference neurosis is an aspect of the therapeutic process most common in
(B) implosive therapy.
(D) client-centered therapy.
(E) none of the above.
More names. I guess B, but I can't see why it matters.
32. The general-adaption syndrome can lead to bodily damage when
(A) psychosomatic diseases fail to protect one from stress.
(B) adaptive physiological responses fail.
(C) the adrenal glands return to normal size before adaptive responses occur.
(D) one is unable to reduce stress which results in chronic bodily arousal.
(E) the resistance stage sets in.
Another doozy. I like A because it's a psychology test. B doesn't look like psychology, but it's nice too. D looks nice too. What's the point of this?
33. The arousal theory, stating that emotion precedes overt behavior and consists mainly of a general state of arousal or activation, is called the
(A) Cannon-Bard theory.
(B) James-Lange theory.
(C) general-adaption theory.
(D) Premack principle.
(E) paired-arousal theory.
More names to forget as soon as the test is over. Do I know them? Well, I know about Premack. I don't think he did any of this stuff, but who knows?
34. In which form of conditioning is the conditioned stimulus (CS) presented after the unconditioned stimulus (UCS)?
(A) higher-order conditioning
(B) forward conditioning
(C) backward conditioning
(D) second-order conditioning
(E) delayed conditioning
Back to conditioning. They must love that stuff. I still don't know.
35. According to Carl Rogers, the structure of the personality is based upon
(A) introversion and extroversion.
(B) being and non-being.
(C) the organism and the self.
(D) the will to meaning and the will to power.
(E) expectations and reality.
Wouldn't personality be based on all of that stuff? This is just names again. I read Rogers but it was a long time ago. I can't even guess.
I am tired so that's enough of this exam. In summary, to pass this exam, which I surely didn't and couldn't do without cramming, you need to know who said what, the names of body parts, and some facts about conditioning and statistics. I have been interested in psychology all my life and I have simply never been interested in any of that. Something is wrong here.
Now you might wonder how it is possible for someone whose career has been so immersed in psychological issues to do this badly on the above test. (I will not add up my score -- you know it wasn't too good.) If it is any comfort, I can point out that I got a C in Introduction to Psychology when I took it in college and that I am (obviously) terrible at multiple choice tests.
My favorite multiple choice test moment is when a graduate student I knew who was TAing a course in social psychology told me that the text book came with a test for the teachers to administer and that one of the questions on the test was about me. I asked her to show me the question. I got it wrong. Now you might wonder how I could have gotten it wrong when it was about my own ideas. OK, I didn't know Allport's ideas, but my own? The answer is that they asked what I thought about something or other, the kind of question that we saw above, and I had changed my mind. To put it more accurately, I couldn't tell exactly what era of my work they had been referring to, but I was pretty sure what I thought now and wasn't so sure about what I used to think. So I got it wrong. I should have studied the textbook to find out what they wrote about me in order to answer the question.
The problem is the ubiquitous idea of "studying." Students study. We love it when students study. We give them study halls. We laud good study habits. But we need to understand that studying is a ridiculous idea. We don't study except to pass exams. I am sure I could have studied for the above test, and I would have done fine. This might have given me the illusion that I knew something, but the stuff tested above isn't worth knowing. It is so much not worth knowing that you can't know it without studying. In other words, you must attempt to memorize obscure facts that will never come up again in your life in order to pass these tests that our school systems and our politicians love so much.
Why do this? It doesn't teach you anything for very long. It certainly doesn't teach you about the fundamental ideas in a field or their application in real life. Instead of study halls there should be "practice halls." Students need to practice what they are trying to learn. This idea makes plenty of sense in music. Students who get to play the piano over and over again get better at it. Well, if we want to teach psychology, we should let students practice it. What does that mean exactly? Frankly, I am not sure. It might mean discussing ideas or looking at problems and forming conclusions. Whatever it means, it surely doesn't mean memorizing irrelevant facts.
The schools will improve when practice takes precedence over studying and not before. The schools will improve when ideas take precedence over facts and not before. The schools will improve when argumentation takes precedence over memorization and not before.
Politicians who think education is the issue of our time should take note. (Or failing that, they should take one the+ tests they continue to extol.)