The Follies of Exams

It’s exam time! That’s right, boys and girls, the day has come when you all get to sit in a large room full of matching desks, chuck out your name and identity for an assigned number/barcode, and regurgitate facts. Naturally, one’s ability to repeat information like a talking parrot is ample proof that he/she has internalized an entire year’s worth of education. How better to flaunt your scholarly rigor than by spitting up into mamma bird’s mouth? Give back a little!

If it weren’t clear, I think exams are absurd.

Now, I will grant you that I am slightly biased at the moment, seeing as I am writing this in lieu of revising for said exams, and thus just a wee bit bitter. However, I do believe that formal exams are an extremely flawed means of testing the amount a student has learned in any given course. The format of exams here (as is the case with most traditionally-run institutions) involves writing essays or answering questions in a defined amount of time whilst sitting in a big, quiet, room which is full of more stress than oxygen. It is an extremely high-pressure environment, without room for creative input or individuality. To prepare, students have to spend weeks cramming information in hopes they can quickly learn everything the test may ask of them.

The reason I think this is such an ineffective way of learning is because of the priorities it places on the learning process. Instead of learning for the sake of bettering one’s self and widening one’s breadth of knowledge, students are shoved into the mindset of learning for the sake of surviving the exam. In theory, both should lead to learning and therefore be effective. However, what ends up happening instead is that as soon as the exam is over, the information (which has been learned hastily and heartlessly) can be immediately dropped from the mind. However, if a student is encouraged to learn for self-betterment, the information becomes a part of him, and an integral piece of his development as a person and as a learner.

Of course, this raises the question of how to go about setting up an academic system that supports this. The school I attend in the states, Hampshire College, successfully achieves it, in my opinion. Granted, I take some major issue with many things about Hampshire, but one thing I stand by them on is finals. Instead of formal tests, students do massive final projects, and are given creative leeway to make the project their own. For example, in an American literature/history class that I took last year, I did my final project on Hawthorne, the fabrication of American mythos, and puritanism. To do so, I wrote a short story which emulated the style of Hawthorne’s gothic tales, and accompanied it with a paper discussing the way in which Hawthorne used puritanism to explore ideas of American identity, flipping the traditional puritan idea of “everyone is a saint” to the darker moral of “everyone has the devil in them.” By having the space to explore these questions in a manner I was interested in (creative writing), and have full control over the topic and the content, I ended up learning an immense amount which I retain to this day– primarily due to the fact that I felt an attachment to the work I was doing. Giving students control and space to explore within their subject will allow them to feel a personal connection with the work they are doing. Impersonal formal exams, however, make that impossible.

It’s simple: Learning should be for yourself, not for someone else. Universities should be set up to support this.

Aaaand on that ranting little note, I should probably go read some Virginia Woolf…