Final Exams, Testing Regimes, Contd.

Daniel Kaufman left a very interesting comment in response to my post on final exams; it captures a great deal of what is wrong with testing regimes in general. I’d like to offer some brief responses to it.

First, testing regimes lay excessive emphasis on memorization and rote recall, which has a questionable connection with what might be termed the ‘application of knowledge’:

There is absolutely no value whatsoever for memorizing anything in philosophy. If you are a surgeon and forget where the spleen is, while you’ve got someone opened up on the table, the consequences will be dire. There is no comparable consequence to forgetting something in philosophy. You simply look it up. In philosophy, understanding is everything. So, at a minimum, there is no reason that tests should not be open-book, open-notes, as mine are.

Or consider another subject: computer science, where students are often asked to write code fragments, correct errors in programs, trace out program flow with output etc. The typical programmer in his workplace is not asked to perform these tasks in anything remotely resembling the environment of a final exam. The closest he will come to this is in an interview for a job. For which, see Dan’s point below about ‘the next set of institutions’ and reader JP’s comment  on the post on final exams.

The entire regime of testing, in subjects like philosophy, suffers from a lack of obvious raison d’etre. Students who really care about learning will learn, regardless of testing, and those who aren’t interested in learning will not be “forced to learn” by a test.

And what, precisely, is the connection between ‘testing in time-controlled environments that emphasizes recall of memorized material’ and ‘learning’? I, for one, have no idea.

2a. The idea is supposed to be that testing allows one to quantify *how much* the person understands in the given subject. The problem is, it is not at all obvious that understanding can be measured in a quantitative way in the humanities.

I suspect this might even be the case in the supposedly ‘more exact’ disciplines.

2c. Consequently, it seems the only real reason for testing in subjects like these is so that students can have grades, which then makes it possible for the *next* set of institutions that they will confront, can select them or reject them.

Indeed; the existence of testing regimes is dependent on a host of institutions that need a quick and dirty method of assessing candidates for a variety of tasks. Accurate, perspicuous assessment of the relevant skills in many of these domains remains an inexact, difficult science. Why not take refuge in the faux objectivity of the test score?

3. I would much prefer that grades be based on oral examination and in-class participation, but with the teaching loads that many of us have to carry, with no grading-help, this is simply not possible. So we are stuck with this.

In recent years, I have steadily increased the percentage of my class grades that is earned by participating in class discussions. My rationale has been that participating in a class discussion in philosophy is a great chance for a student to ‘talk their way through’ an assigned reading, to discuss an argument’s weaknesses and strengths, and to ‘think aloud.’

Finally, as to the deeper ethos reflected here, we are quite unfortunate to live in a culture that seems to have absorbed two unfortunate principles: (1) Work is the most valuable thing a person does in his/her life; (2) That things are only really valuable if they hurt. Both ideas, of course, are a legacy of Christianity—both Protestant and Catholic—and contradict both the pre-Christian, largely Greek lionization of Leisure and Contemplation (a la Aristotle), and the Hebraic view that pleasure is a gift from God and should never be rejected (which is why there is no Ascetic tradition in Judaism).

This needs little comment, except to note these ‘unfortunate principles’ have had a deeply pernicious effect on our political life, hijacking too much discourse with a an impoverished vision of the human condition and the ‘good life.’

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