Rob Cobb

Why tests?

Updated Sep 11, 2013

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

It’s a question that’s largely unasked and unanswered in the world of education: Why do we have tests?I can’t answer for everyone, but a few objectives seem apparent. First and foremost, test evaluation ideally should provide feedback so students can study more effectively and teachers can adapt their teaching to student needs. Second, test scores — and grades more generally — are intended to demonstrate a student’s capability and knowledge. Grades prove that you learned something in the courses you took.

I want to discuss whether our tests at this university succeed in meeting those implicit objectives. But before I do, I want to address two widespread misperceptions that seem to crop up in every course:1. Test questions should not define the curriculum of a course. The material ought to be useful and interesting to you, regardless of whether it affects your GPA. If the course material is not relevant or interesting to the students, something is wrong, whether it is a lack of justification for the requirements in a program, or a student’s ill-fitting choice of courses.

  1. Tests are not, and should not be, used as motivational tools. Professors and students alike are both guilty of this. Professors leverage their classes’ anxiety about grades to keep them engaged, rather than putting in the effort to make class more widely enjoyable. Students let learning wait until exam time.

I myself have, on occasion, waited until exam week to read my textbook. This is not the point of college or exams. We ought to be learning the whole semester, not frenetically studying during the last two weeks, and our professors ought to help us do that by structuring the class around more than preparation for the final.

Let’s go back now and ask how we are doing on the two legitimate aims of evaluations — feedback and demonstration. As a feedback mechanism, our system is flawed but functional. If we are thinking about our assignments in the right way, it becomes clear that subpar quiz and homework performance indicates a need to change something in the way a student is studying. Some tremendous teaching assistants and professors go to great lengths to point out errors in the logic or communication on low-scoring graded assessments.

However, the most heavily weighted components of our grading system — final projects and examinations — fail to provide actionable feedback for students. Often, a student will never see the final once it has been graded, a waste of a valuable learning opportunity.

If we wanted to use evaluations as a true tool of learning and improvement, assessments would provide timely, tailored feedback so students could better learn the material. The same tests could be taken multiple times, ensuring and valuing a student’s eventual comprehension. While the structure of our classes might lead students to believe otherwise, if you find out there are gaps in your knowledge or skill set, you go and fill them, not abandon learning because there is no retest.”Well,” you might say, “the point of finals and other nonfeedback assessments is to prove that students did the work and learned what they needed to learn in order to get credit for the class. Stop bellyaching and get back to work, columnist. Grades measure you against other students, and the best students will get the best jobs, right?”That view is both mistaken and harmful. Every student has sour memories from the classes for which he or she worked hard and learned everything on the syllabus but, through a lack of sleep or other trivial errors, received a grade that unjustly represented all the learning he or she did in class. Similarly, we know of students who coast by without much work at all but cram for a final and get the grade they need.

Considering the differences among grade curves depending on course and professor and oft-cited grade inflation, I put little stock in tests as an adequate demonstration of learning. Employers don’t have the means to check whether a course was rigorous, or whether you actually learned what was on the syllabus, and, by and large, they don’t care.

We are imposing on ourselves a strange and arbitrary system that is ill-designed for achieving its inherent purposes. It causes unwarranted stress and mental anguish for students, and, from the small amount of analysis here, seems to hinder real learning. By questioning our underlying assumptions about what has to be part of a course, we can make the educational experience more meaningful for everyone.

🤓😽 Rob Cobb
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