Thursday, April 05, 2007

The case for exams

A recent item in the local newspaper did something very difficult: it offended me. It offended me so much, in fact, that I have set aside my piles of late-semester work and turned to the blog to provide a rebuttal. Perhaps some of you are wondering what the point of exams is and have set aside your studying to surf the net. Let's consider the case against exams recently presented.

The author took aim at the practice of giving exams at universities, my own in particular. "They do not benefit students at all," said the author, so why have them? His critique was as follows:

1.Exams exist primarily as means by which professors torture their students by forcing them to submit to the "twisted formula" by which students are assessed and by which their efforts are graded. They are, our correspondent intones, "a new form of hell created by vindictive teachers and professors."

2. Students do not learn from exams and so they can only be a means by which the diabolical instructors, that is, the benighted ones who don't "get it," exercise their arbitrary authority over cowering students. The students, he says, are so terrified that they freeze and "are afraid to do anything," not even scratch an itch lest they be accused of misbehaving.

3. Once completed and graded, professors use exams to subject students to further "humiliation" and "punishment" by telling everyone who got the lowest grades.

I respond as follows:

1. Professors do not assign exams to be vindictive or because they have never considered any other means of evaluation. Rather, we provide exams because they are, by and large, an effective means of determining which students have acquired a mastery of the material and to what degree. Moreover, they do so in a means that is relatively objective and fair. What is the alternative? We simply spend a semester chatting and at the end, I assign whatever grade I feel like? Surely that would be open to much more abuse of power than most exams today. Exams are not perfect of course, but in many courses (my own included) they are not the only means of evaluation either.

2. To complain that students don't learn from exams is like complaining that thermometers are lousy heaters: it's true but it misses the point. Exams are not meant to teach; they are meant to test what students have learned. To have such a testing process is reasonable. If I go to a physician, it is not enough for me that she has merely explored ideas about medicine; I want to know that she has demonstrated her deep knowledge of the subject to experts in the field and has satisfied them that she knows what she's talking about. Indeed, the public has the right to expect this rigour of all university graduates. An English degree should mean that the holder has demonstrated knowledge of the English language and its literature and has shown skill in thinking and writing critically about those things. Exams may not benefit students directly, but universities exist not to serve individual students per se, but to serve society as a whole by providing meaningful education. In this sense, exams do benefit students because they help establish that their degrees actually mean something.

The notion that students are so frightened by exams that they can only sit and cower (and not, say, answer questions) is absurd. By the time they reach university, students have taken many exams and they know how to handle it. Good students realize that if they are well prepared, there is no need to panic. To be sure, most students do get stressed, but there is nothing wrong with that. Difficult things are difficult. A few may be stressed beyond healthy levels, but there are avenues by which such students can get help, including a university counseling service, an office for students with disabilities, and, of course, a range of public health services.

3. In my nine years as a university student and my seven years as a faculty member, I have never seen a professor reveal a student's low grade in class or use a bad grade to deliberately humiliate a student in front of peers. I cannot even recall knowing anyone (other than our columnist who never says he actually saw such a thing, only that "some professors" do it) who ever claimed to have witnessed this kind of event. Perhaps it has happened, but such an action would be grounds for a very serious complaint to the administration, not least of all because it would violate a student's legal right to privacy.

Exams, like thermometers, take a small sample and though they are not always exact, they are usually a good indication of what's going on. Just as you only need one thermometer to tell you how warm the whole pool is, one three hour exam is a good indication of what the student has learned in the past three months. The fact is, that good students writing fair exams do well. Students who are not well prepared have themselves to blame. If the exam is unfair, there are means of appeal. But in my experience, most professors bend over backwards to ensure that exams are fair if not downright easy. We provide review, sample questions, and advice on how to study effectively. My exams are given in a modular format to allow students to take breaks and leave the room if need be. I have more than one student this year who will be writing exams in the disability centre so that they can more easily focus on the questions.

The kind of critique that I outlined above and tried to refute is offensive not because it calls me stupid, vindictive, and Satanic -- I can handle that -- but because it speaks from an alarmingly anti-intellectual position, a position that eschews standards and rigour in favour of the nebulous "free flow of ideas" as though every idea is equally interesting and every suggestion equally true. But if that were the goal, why have universities and degrees at all? Our columnist, I suspect, like so many others, wants the benefit of an education without the real costs. He wants to be taught by learned men and women while sneering at the process by which they have become so. He wants the credential that says he is an educated man without having to show what he has done to deserve that credential.

So to all students, I say this. I know it's hard. It's good that it's hard. Really valuable things are usually hard to get. So take a deep breath, let it out, and let's all get back to work.


Anonymous said...

While I disagree totally with the writers logic of why exams are inappropriate.....I will say that you teach your classes well, are fair and creative not only in your teaching methods but also in the way you give exams. Your also very open to ideas about how to give exams and how to make them easier to digest. However there are professors at some universities (i.e stu) who make a point of stating they are handing back the exams in order of highest grade to lowest. And tell you when the failures start.

Additionally, my first year of university (at this university) I failed a chem midterm. Like many students I was a 90's student in highschool and I continued to put out the effort in university. I however was a first year....who just hadn't caught onto the game yet. That professor stood up at the front of the class and told the students who had failed that they were not meant to be in a science degree and presented them with their options. Switch to bridge or take arts or business....something easier and something we might be able to handle becuase we certainly weren't going to pass his class.

While thats not the same as giving exams back from highest to lowest, it was equally if not more devestating for those of us who had failed, cared that they had, and hadn't failed due to lack of attending class, doing the extra assignments or studying.

I was devestated. No professor ever has the right to say that to a student. Especially in their first year when they think that having a phd means you know absolutely everything about everything.

Now I'd tell him to shove it. But then I almost did drop out of a science degree. However I'm a pretty stubbern person. And I stayed in the class simply to prove to him I could pass it. And I did. Its the lowest grade on my transcript but one of the ones I'm most proud of.

And I seriously hope that professor is present on may 12th to see me walk across that stage and get the piece of paper that says I did get the science degree.

Even though to this day that professor doesn't even so much as remember my name (despite being qualifed enough to tell me what I'm intelligent enough to accomplish in my life).

Not all professors take the time to listen to their students and actually teach their students like you do.

You'd be surprised at how influential a professor can be in a students life and how incredibly rude some are to their students

Jehy said...

I read the article as well, and I was seriously considering writing a letter to the editor. I don't teach (I can barely tutor...or spell for that matter), but *I* was offended on behalf of teachers.

Maybe I've had the Force on my side, but I've never had a professor at either of my universities create an exam with the sole purpose of giving me a heart attack. As you say, any stress or worry is on my part and usually is fueled by whether I have studied or not.

Trying to keep my personal biases aside for the columnist (and believe me, it's not easy), I could only take the article with a grain of salt. I known what works for me, I know what's expected of me...I know what to expect of myself. If a professor gives a hard exam, then it should be up to the student to gauge that. If the exam is hard, that to me means that the professor really is concerned and interested in the students' education.

With that said, I'm going over this to make sure my apostrophes are in the correct spots!

Anonymous said...

i never read that article, but i can make a wild guess as to who wrote it. does it happen to be the same author who wrote that little charm of an article claiming that the vagina monologues are a waste of time and effort? if i do recall his argument was that women "don't really" experience more victimization than men in relation to domestic abuse, rape or sexual harassment. uhuh??? look at any actual statistics much?
~ ariane