Last spring my grading heartbreak was two students who thought Representatives and Senators were appointed by the president. This term my grading heartbreak is two students who think the United States has a unicameral system…and said that after defining unicameralism and bicameralism. Oi.
Something else that perpetually troubles me is that so few students understand the question “why?” Here’s the question they were given (irrelevant part redacted).
Explain unicameralism, symmetric bicameralism, and assymetric bicameralism…What type does the U.S. have and why?
Except for those two, everyone knew the U.S. has symmetric bicameralism, but only two (out of 39) took a reasonable stab at why the U.S. has symmetric bicameralism. All others (who didn’t simply skip that part of the question) said it was because the House of Representatives and the Senate had roughly equal authority.
No, that is the definition of symmetric bicameralism. So the students are saying “the U.S. has symmetric bicameralism because it has symmetric bicameralism.” They don’t get that. Good students don’t get that. I get this kind of thing on most “why” questions. E.g., “Why does the U.S. have federalism?” “Because power is divided between the state governments and the federal government.”
I’m not mad at students about this. I’m just frustrated at the difficulty of teaching people to understand the difference between explaining why something is and just restating what it is. I don’t think it’s necessarily the students’ fault–they’ve obviously never been trained to think about what “why” actually means. This is a frosh course, though, and I’d like to think most of them learn by time they graduate. I’d really like to think that.