Ph.D After 50

My Experiences in Graduate School as a Student in her 50s

Ph.D After 50

The World is flat. I know it is.

The world is flat. I know it is.

But what if it isn’t….nah….I know it is……it must be, everyone says it is, so it must be.

But, what if it isn’t? What if….

Tests are necessary. I know they are.

But what if they aren’t…nah….I know they are….they must be, everyone says they are, so they must be.

But, what if they aren’t. What if….

Imagining an educational world without written tests or formal written assessments is hard to do. It seems like written tests have always been around. It seems they are an intrinsic, organic part of classroom instruction. It is hard to imagine education without them. Years, ago, however, it was hard to imagine a world that was not flat. But someone did.

Intriguing to me in this week’s readings are the connections between imagination, learning, types of assessments and student/teacher communication.

It seems to me that encouraging the imagination of students comes hand in hand with encouraging the imaginations of administrators, education experts and teachers. A short investigation of the development of written assessments on the internet is enlightening. (see: and

According to these articles, formal, written test assessments in America are a relatively new mid-1800s phenomenon begun by administrators in efforts to deal with assessing and placing rising numbers of students. They seemed to have replaced more subjective oral assessments done between students and instructors. These oral assessments, in essence, perhaps, became a conversation. Students would have the flexibility to explain their reasoning, to explain their connections – not just return to the teacher the reasoning of the teacher – if the teacher can look or be open to reasoning other than their own.

Being open to different ways of doing things, to have an imagination that allows for “what ifs…” is an important characteristic for teachers. I spent many years teaching math and also experienced my children learning math from others. Students actually “do” math in different ways. There often is more than one way to solve equations or to solve a math problem. Some teachers, however, don’t allow for this. I experienced this frustration first hand as my children would solve things in different ways, but the math teacher could not imagine, and did not consider correct, anyway of solving the problem beyond the way they did it – even though my children had the correct answer. As a fellow math teacher, I immediately thought the teacher had no imagination, even ability to see another way of doing something. This was frustrating for me and extremely frustrating to my children. Having an imagination to look beyond just the ways we see the world would be a first step in opening the world of imagination for our students.

For me, right now, it would be difficult to imagine an educational system that did not have formal grades and written assessments. I believe I could only “imagine” it one step at a time. So I think for me, opening my imagination as a teacher to other ways of doing things, of different connections made by students, for what ifs…, for assessments that allow for these things could be a start. And once you have a start, imagining a world of education in which imagination, making connections, allowing for what ifs… might not be too far away.

6 Opinions

  • Shiqiang said:

    We should encourage students to explore the world around them, and this learning and exploration should be fun to them. It takes curiosity, passion, and imagination, but none of them can be fully evaluated by tests. From my perspective, assessment, like tests and exams, provides a relative fair way to select a small number of people due to limitation of resources. I can hardly imagine a world without assessment when it comes to some serious issues such as decision-making and survival.

  • Jaclyn Drapeau said:

    I agree. As much as I recognize that assessing certain subjects in the same way as others/assessing all the students in the same way isn’t the best way to test for knowledge, I truly have a hard time imagining anything else. Because this way is all that I’m used to. But, like you said, someone had to imagine something different once in order for us to know what we know now–that the earth is not flat.

    Thanks for bringing up the fact that written tests, though old and outdated in one outlook, are actually newer forms of assessment in the grand scheme of things. Right? Oral tests, which are seen more in graduate school, do seem like they would be better; oral tests are also practically impossible when you have as many students in your class as there are seats in a football stadium.
    Talking with students, asking them questions, discussing concepts more in depth seems like it would lead to more thorough mastery of material. But then again, this might work for some students better than it would for others.

  • Jyotsana said:

    Okay I can see the conversation I’m going to have with my advisor:

    Advisor: Written dissertations are necessary, I know they are.

    Me: But what if they aren’t?….

    You bring up some very good points and some of the problem solving occurs when we challenge assumptions, no? Even though those assumptions may have been established for years…..

  • Jason Callahan said:

    I also have reservations about imagining an educational system that doesn’t rely on formal assessment. But I also come from an educational system that has ONLY relied on formal assessment. As my graduate experience has gone on, I’ve found myself a strong believer in the power of discussion. I feel like I retain information more by thinking it through and presenting it in a conversation than memorizing facts and filling in a bubble on an opscan. I struggle with that every time I proctor an exam given by an instructor that I TA for when a student comes up to inquire about a question. The answer I hate to give a student is that they’re “thinking about it too much.” That feels like taking two steps back to take one step forward.

  • Zach Gould said:

    Two things come to mind here. One is the flat earth society in which many conspiracy theorists still cling to the idea that the earth is indeed flat. This is symbolic of the conservatism present in many educators who are accustomed to assessing performance through written examinations.

    The other thought is that my 9th grade geometry teach started off her course by having us all read the novella Flat Land written by Edwin Abbott Abbott and first published in 1894. It is an incredible personification of one dimensional lines realizing they are two dimensional squares and then three dimensional cubes. This type of transformation and broadening of perspective is what is so drastically needed in modern day education.

  • poochy said:

    Thanks for your thoughts, your illustrations are so cute! I agree that we cannot have only one solution, and we should support students’ imagination rather than just an assessment. I also agree with Shiqiang that “assessment, like tests and exams, provides a relative fair way to select a small number of people due to limitation of resources.” For me, Baccalaureate exam in Europe seems like a good intersection point between imagination and an unavoidable assessment.


Share opinions



You may use these HTML tags and attributes to empatize your opinion:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>