We just finished up another term of classes and are now starting the next term. This morning I got my student evaluations from last term’s classes. Student commentary on most aspects of a course are typically very thoughtful. Criticism can be harsh, but most students do it with a spirit helpfulness and construction. However, I always find comments about the exams in a class to be the most incongruous.

The most common comments from students are (1) the exams are too long, and (2) the exams didn’t cover a lot of the material we covered in class. Frequently, students will make both these points within the same sentence.  First of all, these students don’t realize the contradiction inherent in this compound complaint.  If you want me to ask about everything we covered in class, the exams will have to be considerably longer.  However, I think both, and particularly the second complaint reflects a lack of understanding about their own educational goals and what one can expect for their education. I wrote a post on this topic a few years ago, but I think it’s time for an update and continuation of the conversation.

The first complaint is fair enough.  Few people relish taking exams, and so the less time spent doing it the better.  However, I do try to give exams that pose real world situations to people, instead of simply asking them to parrot back information they heard before.  Most students appreciate this more practical application of their knowledge, although they may not enjoy it at the time.

The second complaint-the exams didn’t cover everything in the class-shows what I think is a lack of reflection on what a person wants out of their education.  Most people who make this complaint to me directly will follow it up with one of two comments.  The first is that they knew the stuff that I didn’t ask about, which is a basically a statement of the fact that they didn’t study well for the exams.

The second comment that people will follow with is that “if it wasn’t on the exam, why did I have to know it”? or “if it wasn’t on the exam, why did you bring it up in class?”  For most people, this comment stems from the “Tell me what will be on the exam” mentality, where the grade and not the education is the goal.  I find that B and C students who work their tails off to understand the class material have a much better educational experience than A students who are only in it to get another tick mark on their transcript.

Exams are the motivation for students to engage, study, learn and think deeply about the material in the course.  Given that, a one question exam would be a fair enough assessment – and the exam would be considerably shorter.  Any topic is fair game for the exam, and if you are competent in every topic covered, you should do fine on a one question exam.  However, a one question exam would introduce an unacceptable level of stochasticity into the evaluation .  Thus, a collection of questions scattered across the material is what we do.

The other reason for this complaint seems to be the “showing off” factor.  “I knew it, but you never asked me about it, so I wasn’t able to prove to you how smart I was about it.”  I guess much of this comes from the need for external validation and some sense of self-worth.  However, if you need validation and gratification from your instructors to motivate you to further your education, you’re not getting an education.

As I said before, “Nobody can give you an education; you have to take it.