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Tests and exams as learning tools

There is not one among us who has not lost sleep, grown anxious, or otherwise come unhinged at the thought of taking a major test in some form or another during our careers at students, regardless of the level of education at which we faced this monolithic source of dread.

I can remember fraternity brothers puling “all-nighters” in preparation for final exams in courses which I knew full well that no matter how much they studied, they were doomed to failure because they had left the test preparation until the last possible moment.

It was then that the reality of the permanence of the grade they earned on that particular exam came to visit as a harsh reminder of the obscenely judgmental nature of testing in our culture.

Exams and tests have become the barometer of any student’s supposed mastery of any given subject matter and no matter how professors and teachers try to mollify the impact of the single exam, the fact still remains that for the most part, until we have reached that level of esoteric interest in a specific subject or course, the index by which we are judged, and by which we judge ourselves, is the single test we take in our course work.

I engaged this battle several decades ago when students approached me about my grading system.

You see, my approach is to give students the greatest opportunity to exhibit what they know through extended essay exams.

They have always been open-book and take-home exams.

I have done this because it has always appeared to me that if students become interested enough in any subject, their own curiosity and ingenuity will lead them to the realm of knowledge which yields an intrinsically good value – the acquisition of knowledge as knowledge.

In its purest sense, this is what education seeks to yield through teaching, inspiring, cajoling, and otherwise coaxing students to the conclusion that they do, in fact, know something.

My concern is with the emphasis on testing.

Now, I want to dispel any notion that there is such a thing as an “objective” test.

We have heard from time immemorial that the best test is one which is “objective”.

“Objective” means that there is some non-valuative source which can glean the most significant elements of a course or subject which must be mastered and can insert these elements into the examination so that the examination is, indeed, void of any preferential persuasions.

Alas, this is simply not the case.

There is always someone or some small group which determines the structure and the essence of the test.

Ultimately, the questions which appear on the test are products of either a single person, or a single person in concert with other like-minded individuals who determine not only the content of the test, but the value ascribed to that test.

If the chemistry professor, let us say, happens to like the qualitative side of the course, you can bet that the test will be loaded with qualitative analysis elements.

The student has no input into the make-up of the test, and should not have any such input.

But at the same time, this forces the student to take a shot-gun approach to studying for the exam.

And I simply do not believe that this is what testing should be.

Tests should not be the final arbiters of the value of the knowledge which a student may have mastered.

Nor should they brand forever the effort which the student has expended during the course.

In my narrow world, tests must be learning tools, just as lectures, labs, videos, and experiments are learning tools.

We must assume that tests embody the very essence of the major thrust of the course, but that is not always the case – i.e., there is no “objective” test.

Too often tests are left to the preferences of the test-makers and they, too, are cursed with the foibles of the human condition.

The test must confirm what the student knows, not as a contest in value-judgment, but rather as a barometer of how much the student has mastered and how much more the student needs to master in order to be able to pronounce a degree of proficiency in the course or the subject.

It has always puzzled my that tests seem to be some exercise completely apart from the learning process, that is, that tests are some sort of judgmental yoke which students must forever subscribe to as a result of a single test on a single day

in a single place.

If tests are to indicate what one knows, then they should not be arbiters of individual student worth, but rather they should be effective learning tools which allow the student to expand not only the extent of the student’s knowledge but the breadth of the student’s appreciation and understanding of the subject-matter.

Dr. Arthur G. Ogden is the Demopolis Campus Director of Alabama Southern Community College.

All his degrees are in philosophy.

He can be reached at aogden@ascc.edu.