The Proper Way to Assess: Why testing sucks

A person taking a multiple-choice exam. Exams are not a true reflection of our intelligence, and do not prepare students for the workplace. Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu/Unsplash

Exams are stressful and often not a true reflection of our intelligence, yet we pay $30,000 a year to have our intellect determined by a number. I must admit, exams are sometimes a necessary evil, a way to determine if what is being taught is being retained, but having exams as the only evaluating measure can result in an inaccurate representation of intellect. Teaching to ensure good grades can also lead to students focusing on memorization rather than application; a technique that creates students ill-prepared to face problems in which they must utilize that information.  

High school was not perfect, and like most people, I was ready for the next chapter of my life. But the one thing I missed was the creativity when it came to assessments of our understanding. Writing our own soliloquies after reading Shakespeare. Recreating the trenches of World War I. Walking in the forest after learning about sedimentation. And yes, though group projects and presentations could sometimes be remarkably frustrating, they forced me to learn teamwork and communication skills. These projects all made me not only truly learn the material but also  gain the skills I would need  to succeed as an adult. Indeed, a Forbes article notes that only 13% of adults believe that college graduates are prepared for the workplace. The switch from an immersive learning environment to sitting in a room and listening to a lecture was a sharp change. Compared to the projects and book reports of my youth, tests felt like a poor reflection of my understanding nor did they aid in the challenges I would face in the workplace.

People collaborating in a workspace. A lack of communication is the first challenge on LinkedIn. Photo by Jason Goodman/Unsplash

Something I always found interesting were the complaints my parents made about work. It usually was not about not knowing the specifics of how to do a task (since they could ask someone or just look it up) but often it was about the people they worked with. This is not just a problem my parents face. On LinkedIn, the first challenge listed is a lack of communication. Being in school surrounded by peers promotes socialization. But we are not often put in situations where our judgments are questioned. Indeed, usually if we meet someone we don’t like, there is little pressure to have to meet them again let alone work on a career-defining project with them. In real life, you have to depend on others. You have to build rapport. In real life, you will never find yourself isolated and having to know all the answers unless you find yourself taking an exam.  

To better this, we can begin with small changes such as adding in varying forms of assessments. For example, papers and projects rather than just exams. However, this will be difficult for some subjects. For those, partner tests might be a good option. That may sound like a suggestion from someone who has had a poor experience with exams. And yes, I have. But partner tests would not just ease the burden on a person but also allow students to gain experience in working with others. Indeed, it is the perfect compromise. Students would have to know the material, but if partners disagreed on a question they would have to dig into why they thought an answer was right. In this way, students would better understand the material while also working on their ability to work with others.  

Partner exams are but one idea and they alone will not make college students feel as though they are prepared to face the quarrels and experiences of the workplace. But for the amount we pay and the time we spend, it may be beneficial for colleges to promote forms of assessment that not only assess their student’s capabilities, but also promote understanding and the formation of real-world skills.  

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