Testing and an end to learning

Tests are an ineffective way to gauge a student’s knowledge and capability.
December 10, 2012

I’ve always found final examinations and testing unreasonable acts. That is, I don’t always believe in them. This often puts me at odds with other teachers because in many fields, testing is a necessity. It seems that no matter what level of education you’re working on, you will have to take a test at some point. However, what many seem to forget is that some topics can easily be tested and some topics spurn testing. Yet, despite this repulsion, many fields and many teachers force tests on their students. To them and all test proponents, I say: Testing is a poor way to gauge knowledge.

It’s easier for me to say this than for others. I’m thankfully in a discipline that understands the aberrant qualities of testing. As a writing teacher, I understand that it’s tough to test writing. It’s hard to tell someone to sit down and answer a prompt that will be tested when said prompt is devoid of context. It’s ludicrous. While my discipline understands the issues with testing writing, not everyone in my discipline understands. I still hear horror stories from former and current students about how their “writing teacher” made them take a test. Why the quotes around writing teacher? I think that any writing teacher that actively gives tests to their students is only a writing teacher in name.

Writing is unlike many other acts. For example, a math test makes sense because lower level math is static. Two plus two will always equal four. But writing is fluid and subjective; it moves and changes depending on the writer, audience and context. So, when I hear about instructors giving tests, I cringe. I abhor all tests. I don’t think learning can be relegated to a one-shot testing form.

I understand all too well the purpose of final exams. A student spends a semester in a class, and in order to see if they understood and retained the knowledge, they are tested. But the problem with final exams is that they are final. They are at the end. They exist at a point when the student can ask no more questions. This is a travesty to learning — not because it is a test but because it furthers a notion that learning ends.

I’ve long been a nuisance, or that’s how I feel sometimes. I write things, and people — including some of my colleagues — say, “How could you write that?!” They look at me as if I’m giving away state secrets. I’m not. I’m just being honest, and I feel compelled to be honest and direct in most situations. Testing is one of these situations. The fact that some of my most esteemed colleagues across the disciplines and fields in higher education think testing is a proper way to gauge student knowledge befuddles me. How can individuals with such recorded intellect and credibility be so supportive of this practice with such apparent flaws?

Final exams seem like a nice way for instructors to avoid responsibility in the end for student learning. “Johnny failed the final exam because he didn’t pay attention. It’s not my fault.” Certainly, I do not think teachers are solely responsible for students’ learning. Students must bear much of the onus, but that doesn’t mean teachers are without responsibility. What is irritating about the argument that teachers have no responsibility is that it expects students to remember what a teacher said 15 weeks prior in order to answer a question on a test that ultimately highlights who is a good test taker and who is not. That’s it.

I’ve never been a good test taker. I was always good at essay tests because I liked to write and I knew I could construct an argument. I could hardly ever take other forms of testing and succeed. As a matter of fact, the only portions of tests I was ever good at were those requiring long-form writing. I did great on the SAT Verbal and poorly on the Math part. I did great on the GRE verbal, and I got the absolute lowest score possible on the math part.

What did I learn? I learned that I couldn’t answer math problems that I hadn’t thought about in years. We hear about students struggling with testing all the time. We hear about how students freak out under testing pressure, fill in random answers because they can’t concentrate and just give up. Yet we continue to push testing as a proper gauge for knowledge. Why? It’s easy.

It’s easier for a teacher to grade a multiple-choice test than an essay test. It’s easier for universities to collect student data for funding with deliverable tests instead of engagement through reading. Final exams at the university level are no different. You meet for two hours, pour out the knowledge you can remember and hope for the best. There’s hardly anything critical about it.

We take tests, but we often don’t learn anything. Isn’t there a better way to gauge student knowledge? Yes. Ask them to write something or maybe just talk to them. Maybe we could better understand students’ learning if teachers had more conversations with them.

At the root, tests aren’t designed to see what you know; they’re designed to see what you don’t know and then hold what you don’t know against you. Responsibility belongs with the students. Teaching style, the learning space, the testing space, student and teacher life issues, the weather, the seating arrangement, the textbook or anything else certainly couldn’t influence testing. All those things have nothing to do with learning, so why should we bother to think about them.

It’s silly to expect a university and its teachers to consider learning from all angles. Tests fail to take into consideration many facets of being a student in a university community — the time has come for teachers to challenge their notions of tests altogether.

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