Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

What are exams for?

If you teach long enough, you start to think that students are only after an extra point on an exam, and not trying to learn from what you are trying to teach them – particularly the broader learning experiences that students should be having in genuinely evaluating their own performance, and engaging in self-critical evaluations that will make themselves better.

Certainly, grades are important. Grades are the tangible outcome of an evaluation of a student’s performance in a class. However, most students never realize that exams are part of their own learning experience in school. Most students see exams only as proof to the class instructor that they have mastered the material. Any exam you take is far from that. Surely, evaluation of your knowledge is part of the reason instructors give exams. However, the other reason instructors give exams is to ensure that you are doing your best at digesting the material and thinking deeply about it, regardless of the specifics asked on the exam.

What most students also miss is the deep structure that exams should play in their own learning experience. The other major goal of any exam is to hone your abilities to craft intellectually rich, complete, subtle and succinct arguments in response to issues posed to you. How do you evaluate your own performance in doing that? You do that by studying your own answers and how those answers were received by the grader. That’s the criterion by which you have to judge your answers.

In effect, study and analyze how you missed a question. Did you simply not know the information necessary to answer the question? If this is true, then you need to study that material.

If you knew the information, but did not craft an effective answer, analyze how your answer was not effective. People often miss points in places where their argument was incomplete or irrelevant to the issue at hand. Instead of trying to parse tangential nuances out of a particular question or make excuses for why your interpretation was different from the plain language in a question, you need to evaluate and critically analyze what was deficient in your answers, so that you will be able to craft better more complete and more to the point arguments in the future.

For the rest of your life and no matter what field you go into, you are going to be making arguments to other people. The people to which you make those arguments are going to judge your arguments for completeness and relevance to the issues at hand. You can learn mightily from your performance on exams, if you will spend the time to understand where you went off track, relative to what the question asks. This is where you hone the skills to craft effective and nuanced arguments that will serve you for the rest of your life.

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1 Comment

  1. Exams simply test your ability to learn, and it’s a lot of professions, learning can be a continuous part of your job.

    Learning doesn’t necessarily end at school or college.

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