My boss's boss (sort of - I can never get the org chart straight) at Terribly Large But In Fact Only Medium-Sized Publishing Company told me the other day that many of our clients, i.e. professors, repeatedly stress the need for more and more exercises, more drill-and-kill material. She stressed the need for 'practice'.
Now, I get the sense her heart wasn't really in this particular bit of advocacy. I'd just made the claim that drill-and-kill exercises are more or less useless, but I think I didn't make my point sufficiently strongly or clearly. Here's the thing: yes students need to be able to work problems over and over. Doing three questions per homework assignment isn't enough. They need to be able to fail and make mistakes in a huge variety of ways. Our physics and chemistry and math problems at MIT never took that form - I remember every assignment being a small number of complex problems - but frankly, I could have used the practice.
But that's not what I needed most, and here's where I think I was on the mark talking to MBBSO (My Boss's Boss, Sort Of). Students do need practice, and they can seek that out - they know how to ask for it. What they generally don't know how to ask for is a wider variety of illustrative metaphors, a richer conceptual bed, a more consistent methodology, more striking analogy. Rote learning can be a path to conceptual understanding, but when you're talking about pretty serious concepts, no amount of fill-in-the-blanks is going to substitute for a mentor patiently addressing students' ill-thought-out conceptual questions. Drill-and-kill can do nothing about gaps in student knowledge; if a student makes gains, it's because she has made the effort herself.
Drill-and-kill takes the burden of teaching off the teacher. And that's why professors ask for these questions - and furthermore, they can't really ask for what students need most, because there's no way that Only-Apparently-Big Textbook Publishing House could provide it. So I reiterate the point I (self-destructively, no doubt) made to MBBSO: if a professor has the choice between, on the one hand, buying a shiny new Web supplement at the cost of thousands of dollars and, on the other, hiring a couple more TA's, hire the TA's. No question. More personal attention, a wider variety of analogical frameworks. Shift the students around, let them find a fit for their modes of thinking.
What drill-and-kill work actually kills is passion. And the confidence it builds it comes from Mad Libs-style learning that mainly just substitutes for conceptual rigor. Its value is realized only after the teacher has taken his or her responsibility to students seriously. It embodies respect for neither teacher nor student.
(Oh but: it's easy. And you gotta say something for that.)