On Exams

And yes, this is the generic whining-about-exams post.

You know, it occurs to me that our current model of judging an entire year's worth of growth and development in a few very stressful weeks, where if you don't show up to the exam you can't arrange a time to sit it that isn't next summer, is possibly a bit wrongheaded.

Now, there are lots of reasons why this is a stupid system: that much stress makes people perform worse, judging people based on a couple of hours in a very uncomfortable situation is never going to give you a very good judgement, it encourages teaching students to pass exams instead of teaching students to actually know their subject, and you can probably fill in the rest...

...A big problem is that most exams test recall skills, the ability to regurgitate information. Now, having a good memory is a great thing to have, and a very useful one too.

The trouble is, while a good memory is still a useful skill in the modern world, we are now also surrounded by technology that can retrieve incredible amounts of information very quickly. This wouldn't be such a problem for the old exam system if you could make sure that this technology stayed out of the exam room - but you can't. Smartphones are pretty much ubiquitous nowadays (quick reminder to everyone that they are a computer you can hold in the palm of your hand, because we should not take such technological advancement for granted), and it's true that you still have to hand things like that in before sitting the exam - but that's because computer chips are not yet commonly found in things like clothes, glasses and contact lenses. If they were, and if we were all walking around being able to use Google in our contact lenses, things would look very different.

You see, in such a society - a society that we are potentially moving towards - having a good memory would still be a useful skill, but it would also be one that would not be called upon so much because we would be able to retrieve far more information far more quickly thanks to the internet. In such a society, recall might still be important, but the ability to sift through a lot of information quickly and find what you look for would be more important still. And not just that, but something else too: the ability to derive things from basic principles, something that is important today but that is generally considered higher-order thinking.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that for the most part, exams test recall, a skill that is generally more useful when you don't have near-instant access to ludicrous amounts of information through items you carry around every day or even wear. If exams are still to be relevant, then, they have to test a candidate's ability to sift through information or - even better - to derive things from that information. These are skills that can be sharpened, but that aren't easy to teach in a classroom - so it would also help to break the stranglehold of teaching to the test.

Or, you know, we could stop putting so much focus on final exams and try and assess students (if we even need to do that) over the course of at least a year to get a better picture of their aptitude.