Over the past few years, I have grown more concerned about the negative effects of written exams on our students. In spite of our efforts to promote “learning for its own sake”, and success in generating engaging discussions ‘from time to time, most of our students seem to approach exams in a slavish or childish spirit.
I reached a breaking point in the middle of the recently-concluded exam week, after reading the exams from a wonderful group of Junior students. We had had excellent conversations on the origins and significance of algebra as we worked through the Geometry of Descartes. The exam essay question, accompanied by provocative quotations, offered a wide range of possibilities for the students to express their reflections on some of the grand claims made for algebra by Descartes and his predecessor Viete, and to integrate ideas from their seminar readings in early modern thought and the birth of physics discussed in their natural science class.
What I received were mostly bland essays with the same relatively narrow focus, the same strengths, the same errors, not all of them ones that had come up in our class discussions. They smacked of industrial production, about as exciting and varied as McDonald’s (which my wife and I can attest tastes the same in Assisi as in Santa Paula). I’ll bet my colleagues, who probably had many different discussions throughout the semester, received very similar exams. I think I can account for this. Over the past few years, I have become aware that many of our students prepare for exams by using review guides that have been put together by other students from previous years. From inquiries I have made, I estimate that these guides form an important part of exam preparation for over half, perhaps as many as three-quarters, of our students.
The Junior math exams threw me into a state of obsessive gloom, as I faced the need of creating an examination for my Freshman Philosophy students, who had spent a semester in frenetic, delightful, serious, at times life-changing discussions of Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s Categories. I could not stomach the thought of making them write mass-produced, soulless essays. But what to do?
A few years ago, I experimented with giving oral exams to Senior Math students. That was a great experience for me and for many of the students. I spent half an hour with each student, questioning them in depth about the most interesting ideas that came up in the course, suggesting new lines of thought to help them connect ideas they were developing. It was vastly better than having them spend two hours regurgitating on paper, then having me spend an entire day tasting the results. (Tolkien referred to marking exams as “the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.”)
Oral exams were the norm in Western education before the middle of the 19th century. In other words, back when liberal education was the norm. (For an excellent example, see Newman, “Elementary Studies: Grammar, ss.2-3.) As education became more industrialized, the British began to copy the practice of their civil service, which had recently imported the practice of basing preferment on written exams from the Chinese, whose bureaucracy provided for amazing cultural continuity in spite of tumultuous changes in rulers. (See A Brief History of Exams and the Wikipedia article on testing.) To be fair, the Jesuits had begun imitating the Chinese in the 17th century, in order to increase a competitive spirit among their students.
As a student, I enjoyed much about exam week. I enjoyed the learning experience of comprehensive reviews, helping fellow students understand some of the more basic concepts with which they had struggled, and putting down in writing what I had come to understand with greater clarity and precision than during the semester. Still, I often wondered why our College, so different in so many ways from almost every other educational institution of the twentieth century, thought this modern practice a great advance over the tradition. During 25 years of discussing the issue from time to time, two reasons frequently recur for our practice – the belief that an external threat is needed to prompt students to engage in the important practice of review, and the need to give grades to students who do not participate in class discussions. I don’t understand how either of these reasons fits with our institutional ordering towards truly free education. In today’s “nothing but the test” educational climate, they have a crippling effect on all we do.
My melancholic reflections led me to consider intently what I hope for from exams. For the students, I hope that the formality and solemnity of having an entire week devoted to review and writing will lead them to truly re-view. As John Milton Gregory expressed,
A review is something more than a repetition. A machine may repeat a process, but only an intelligent agent can review it….A repetition by the mind is the re-thinking of a thought….It involves fresh conceptions and new associations, and brings an increase of facility and power.
They should be able to identify what is most worth knowing in what they have studied and, in assessing themselves, gain a sense of what they understand and don’t understand about it. In preparing to answer questions for themselves, they should come to a clearer realization of what they know for themselves, as distinct from what they depend on others to articulate. The whole experience should make them long for more time than they have to re-visit the books, and prepare them for further thought and exploration in later studies.
For myself, I hope exams will allow me to get to know each student better. I want to gain a greater sense, not simply of what they have learned, but of their capabilities, of the progress they have made, of the next steps they need to take in their individual development. I also want to assess my work with the students – have they all missed something important? Was it a result of my neglect as a teacher? Among the least important uses of the exam is determining grades for the students. Not only do I consider grading (as distinct from other ways of communicating my assessment to interested parties) barely to be tolerated as a necessity demanded by today’s universal practice, but I have found over the years that exams only affect the grades of a handful of students – those who do not participate in class discussions, and those whose participation grades straddle the B+/A- line.
As a result of my reflections (along with conversation with my daughter, a recent graduate of our college), I came to the sharp realization that the current climate regarding exams made it so that I am unable to learn what I really want to know, and detrimentally affected the development of my students. So, before handing the exams to my students, I told them that nothing they wrote or did not write would have a negative impact on their grade. The result was a batch of 31 essays that I honestly enjoyed reading, and that helped me to understand my students much better than exams had for years.
Now I have to plan for next semester. I still have hope that the goods I desire can come from the exam experience. Review classes neither allow students the time for thorough review nor seem to give them impetus to take the review seriously. They are also dominated by the same students who dominate discussions all year; other students will not be personally accountable. I want each student to be responsible for making some orderly, encompassing, challenging presentation.
So here’s what I would like to do. To relieve the slavish desire while still allowing for a healthy sense of striving for excellence, I will keep the premise that the examination can only improve grades. Yet, I am convinced that written essays alone will not reliably reveal the mind of students to me; an oral element that will allow me to question the students is essential for assessment, as well as allowing me to initiate a discussion tailored to the student’s needs. The traditions of liberal education agree with me on this. On the other hand, I want students to present some complete idea, as they do in an essay. So my current thought is to give students an hour or so to prepare a five minute presentation on some question I set them, which they may either write out in full or in note form. I will have them make the presentation to me, then engage in a limited ten minutes of discussion with me about it. I will have to work through some details to make this workable for 31 students on the last school day of the year, but I don’t think they are insurmountable. Perhaps I can do it with two or three students at a time, and allow them to question each other? Probably not.