Column: Why an over-emphasis on exams hinders learning

In this July 21, 2014 file photo, students at a summer reading academy at Buchanan elementary school work in the computer lab at the school in Oklahoma City. Wading into one of the most polarizing issues in education, President Barack Obama called Saturday for capping standardized testing at 2 percent of classroom time, while conceding the government shares responsibility for having turned tests into the be-all-and-end-all of American schools. (Sue Ogrocki, File/AP)

It’s that dreaded part of the semester: your free time dwindles as your cortisol levels rise dangerously high. Caffeine begins to flow in near equal measure to blood in your veins. The daunting, silent floors of Homer Babbidge are filled. It can mean only one thing: midterms.

Many at UConn and on college campuses nationwide have moved into the midway point of the semester, an occasion marked by examinations testing all of the course material up until that point. In theory, students are supposed to have kept up with their courses, filling in any informational gaps along the way with midterms simply acting as a checkup to measure students’ progress and understanding of material being taught in the classroom.

As many have learned in such courses, theory does not necessarily correlate with practice. Students can’t always stay on top of assignments due to the time-consuming nature of extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs, volunteering, research and employment as well as the overall workload from taking a myriad of classes. 

The bottom line is that it all adds up and 24 hours in a day doesn’t get you nearly as far as it once did. The result? Students are forced to “cram” for midterms, stuffing as much information as possible into their heads in the few weeks, days, sometimes hours, before their exams in attempt to get a decent score that won’t scar their academic records and limit job or graduate school opportunities in the future. 

One has to take a step back and wonder – does this system really promote learning? Is this really expanding the minds of a rising generation and equipping them with the necessary skills to enter the workforce? I believe an over-emphasis on exams actually hinders learning, as these tests become an endpoint goal in themselves, with students focusing solely on the information that will yield the highest score. Learning, then, becomes secondary.

The Obama administration seems to agree as it called for limits on testing in American schools this past Saturday. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration called for a limit on examination to comprise no more than two percent of total classroom time. “…I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction,” said secretary of education Arne Duncan. 

A survey done by the Council of the Great City schools set out to determine just how much testing was really being done between prekindergarten and high school graduation. It found that around 112 mandatory standardized tests, or around eight exams per year, were conducted in this timeframe. Furthermore, the survey found no evidence that preparation for these tests actually bolstered academic performance.

The administration’s statements along with the survey’s findings are essentially an acknowledgement of the failures of established policies, among which include encouraging states to evaluate teachers based on test scores.  Such policies and the general culture of testing as a metric for education efficacy establish curricula that revolve around exams rather than having exams be reflections of the quality of the curricula. 

The administration is now calling for fewer, but more purposeful, tests. Personally, I still don’t think this will be completely effective. Fewer tests mean that each exam will be even more important and schools will simply tailor their curricula towards achieving the highest scores on these fewer examinations. While I agree that some form of examination is necessary in order to objectively quantify education across the country, I believe it should be restructured in a way that won’t completely hinder the freedom of educators to teach. 

Rather than having a few large exams throughout the year or semester, there should be a switch to smaller, more periodic assessments that partition the curriculum into manageable chunks – essentially the idea behind the quiz. These quizzes would encourage students to try and keep up with the material, offering a chance for educators and students to recognize lapses in comprehension and to address them early.

Furthermore, with more frequent assessments, each quiz would weigh less on the student’s grade, and a bad score would not permanently mar a student’s academic record. These quizzes should also encourage creativity and collaboration to be reflective of industrial settings, rather than an abstract one-size-fits-all approach.

While this may not be an all-inclusive metric for academics, I believe it would be a step in the right direction to truly promote learning.


Vinay Maliakal is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at vinay.maliakal@uconn.edu.