Friday, April 6, 2012

Problems with Traditional Exams

Below is a critique of traditional exams written by Ray (@rayboudreau) a current Grade 12 student.  He offers insight on exams and diplomas from the view point of the largest stakeholders of all, the persons writing them.

Exams are “said” to represent one’s knowledge of course material, this statement is both true and false.

Exams do test what we know but misses the main idea of why the answer is so. In most of today’s classes a student can pay attention in class, do their homework and study hard and they should obtain a decent mark but does this mark really display what they know? Exams force us students to memorize what material will be on that exam and to ignore the concepts that won’t be on it. Throughout my schooling there have been countless times when I have asked a teacher “Do we need to know this for the exam? “And they have replied with “No” so my fellow classmates and I don’t worry about it.

 I have noticed that the kids who take interest in the subject want to know WHY and it’s these students that seem to obtain the most success and useful knowledge from that class.  Most courses you can memorize all the material and know what it is but not understand why it is so and how you can use it in your life. Exams limit one’s potential and quite frankly not to many students like them.

For example the dreaded diploma examinations that are worth 50% of our mark. We put in many hours into each subject in school over 6 hours a week and then 50% of our mark is based on a 3 hour exam? This time limit puts even more stress and pressure on us students, then we are told to manage our time for this exam we have never seen and aren’t sure what to expect. Personally when going in to write my math 30 diploma I was told I’d have lots of time so I took my time on each question. The pressure got to me, as I would second guess myself on each question. Before I knew it I was way behind, panicking as I knew I was in trouble.  I ended up having to guess on 7 questions as I had run out of time, me a kid who is quite familiar with managing time.

What I’m getting at is that the exam couldn’t accurately represent my knowledge as it had a set of rules with it and could only cover so many concepts.  I was successful all year understanding each concept feeling confident with my learning then ONE exam dictates half of my mark. It dropped my mark a sizable amount and I felt ripped off. This exam did not represent my knowledge but more so the mark I got after some unfortunate questions that got the best of me.

 Exams limit our potential. In the real world we will have access to technology, others input and potentially more time which can help us great amounts. We will have real life situations where the “why” will be more important because the “how” can easily and quickly be taught to us due to the fact we understand the concepts present.

Value of feedback assessments?

Contrary to exam focused classes, assessments provide us with the “why”, “how” and even gives us experience and ways to use it in our life. To create our own examples we need to know why something occurs and then how this works or occurs. When we go out and create our projects we make our own examples that relate to us and stuff we are interested in which is another aspect missed by exam focused courses.  The importance of feedback in school to me seems quite important and valuable. 

We learn from our mistakes and that’s the honest truth. We shouldn’t be punished for mistakes rather taught and encouraged how to not make them again. In exam situations we sometimes get to go over the questions and see how to do it correctly, with the diplomas and final exams no such luxury is granted. You do what you can and you get a mark, no feedback or an idea of what questions and concepts you struggled with, no learning!

“If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” -Ignacio Estrada


  1. Well said! I just want to add a few things to what you said. I am a fellow grade 12 student in Ray's school.
    I've noticed that high school courses tend to focus a lot on what is easily testable as opposed to what can help us later on in life. Also, because of this trend, it creates, like you mentioned, an environment in which absorbing information to be able to repeat it later is what is considered necessary for success. There are 'application questions' in which you should be able to show that you can use your knowledge in the real world but many of these end up boiling down to if you can interpret their tricky wording or diagrams. For example, I recently answered a biology question incorrectly simply because I didn't follow an arrow's direction properly in a diagram. I think, instead, that thinking for yourself and asking, in your words, the 'why' questions should be encourged much more by the education system as I believe it would not only increase the quality of education but also make more people interested in the process of learning.

    Also, though this may sound strange for those who know me, I think that math and science courses are overemphasized in our school system. They are all considered 'core' subjects while other courses such as Creative Writing and Art, both of which can also be useful in the real world, are not. What determines what is a core subject and what is not? It seems to me that the simple answer is that the subjects that can be easily tested are 'core subjects' and the ones that are based on creativity and are hence harder to test are 'options'. Although logic is useful to be able to understand the more predictable aspects of life, creativity, as the word itself suggests, is what creates new things and allows for more variety in life. Therefore, I think it should be considered at least as important as logic in school.

    Finally, I definitely agree that diplomas are not fair to students. They don't give you much time considering the amount of questions on them, and though some can answer questions quickly others take more time though they may understand the material just as well. Also, there is basically no learning that occurs on a diploma at all, since we can't see what we did wrong and where we could still improve. Also, if a student was simply having an off day on the diploma, there goes 50% of their mark which is, quite frankly, way too much.

    Testing is supposed to tell how much learning is occuring, but instead the amount of learning is dependent on the content of tests. Something should change here.

  2. I agree that 50% of the final grade is too much weight for a single exam. However, I do believe exams and other tests serve a good purpose. I think they are a necessary way to force students to study and prepare. I know that I have learned a lot by studying for these dreaded exams that I would not have forced myself to take the time to do, if I had not "had to". We have tests throughout life and the true is, we don't have to "like" everything that is required of us. Most of us don't enjoy every part of our job - at home or at work, but somethings are necessary to help us grown and learn. I believe that tests are one of these necessities. Other assessments are useful and helpful also, but tests and exams have value, too. Perhaps they shouldn't be weighted so heavily, but they should continue to be a major part of assessment.

  3. Part of the reason why school is so strange is we CAN'T work like real life all the time.

    "How can you prepare students for the real life when you can't give them real life situations?"

    The OP said "Exams limit our potential. In the real world we will have access to technology, others [sic] input and potentially more time which can help us great amounts. We will have real life situations where the “why” will be more important because the “how” can easily and quickly be taught to us due to the fact we understand the concepts present", but the reason WHY those real life situations are more focused on the "why" and not the "how" is because you've spent formative years learning "how" so you can readily implement it with a "why". If you are in a committee and you need to brain storm solutions by a deadline, you don't have time to relearn how to come up with the information needed; you already need to know how to collect and analyze statistical data, how to read past reports and analyze them effectively, and how to use the graphs, social science, speaking and writing ability to get your point across. You can't spend time learning how to do those things now that you have a "Oh, That's why they were teaching this in school" situation in front of you. School is meant to give you the HOW so you can apply them when given a WHY.

    "Let's say, for now, that I buy your point; schools are to teach how and not always why. It's an awful point, but let's say I buy it anyway. How does that relate to exams?"

    It seemed to me, while reading the OP and Dante's comment, that one of the biggest arguments was the focus of "how" instead of "why". If the focus of school is to help students see the how so they can apply those skills effectively in the real world, the first exams should be making sure that students CAN do the skills in an efficient manner. So yes, reading diagrams is a "how to" skill. If you misread an arrow, that means your "how to" skill of analyzing given data was not perfected yet. Schools are built to help you focus on the skills. At higher levels, they can add more application based material to introduce very structured "whys", but that needs to come after you have the base knowledge.

    "50% for the final grade is based off a test, though!"

    Which is based on the skills that you have learned throughout the entire year! You've had 7 to 9 months to look at the material and study it and practice those skills in projects, assignments, and earlier tests. The final is trying to measure how well you did over the entire year and/or years. Now, I too think 50% is a bit high, but I can think of real world "exams" where 100% of the grade is based on a couple of hours. You know the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Mike Meyers, Jim Carey and other famous comedians FAILED the audition because of sickness or because they didn't gel well with the other actors in the one day audition. If you are trying to claim that real-world situations don't have the high stress of the exam you sit for at the end of the year ... I'm sorry. Even more so when dealing with getting a job in competitive markets.

    "So schools are there to give us how-to skills so that we can employ them in the real world and tests are a way of measuring those skills in a similar stakes environment?"

    Tests are also to give students a chance to study and think of new ways to learn the material. I know there are plenty of other assessments out there, but even projects will focus on specific aspects of the material covered, and as a teacher, I don't know how which part of the material you need to know most. I know which ones are going to be retaught in college and reworked on as you start preparing for your final profession, so I can focus on the skills necessary to GET there first.