Pattern Recognition vs. Real Understanding - The Objective Standard

Every year, when I give my first test in a grammar or literature class, some new student asks me whether the test will be multiple choice.

Every year, I look him in the eye and say: "I can assure you that you will never, in any class, under any circumstances, at any point in your education at VanDamme Academy, have a test that is multiple choice."

The vast majority of the students' work at VDA is written—in complete sentences, paragraphs, or essays. There is no surer way for the student to master the material, and for the teacher to determine whether he has mastered it.

For the student to write explanations, in complete sentences, about every subject, requires that he have a true understanding of the concepts at hand.

But he can often do well on multiple choice, matching, or other rote exercises with no real understanding.

Children have incredible, sponge-like brains, that give them an almost unlimited capacity for memorization and pattern recognition. The teacher's job is to ensure that this amazing talent does not become a substitute for understanding.

I have encountered this issue repeatedly in grammar class. Grammar texts typically introduce a new concept, such as the prepositional phrase, define it, provide examples, and then ask students to do a series of rote exercises in which they identify the prepositional phrases in a sentence.

Year after year, I find that students do very well recognizing prepositional phrases, such as "in the park," "after the show," "with my friend," and "under the bed," but will also occasionally underline groups of words like "is the winner" or "has the answer" because these groups of words seem to vaguely fit the pattern of a prepositional phrase. . . .

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