Exams belong in the past

Job interviews for entry-level positions in the technology sector are notorious for the use of whiteboard tests: Interviewers ask applicants to solve programming problems on a whiteboard, without access to reference materials or coded-checking tools that programmers would usually have access to when doing real work. Universally reviled by applicants, the process is slowly falling out of favour with employers as well, largely because whiteboard tests are so unlike ‘real life’ that they reveal nothing useful about a candidate. This may seem familiar to students who have just experienced the midterm exam crunch. Like whiteboard tests, most university exams don’t measure the most important skills for students’ long-term success, and their place in education needs reevaluating.

Typical exams rely heavily on a few cognitive skills: Memorization, long-term focus, and the ability to quickly process and categorize information. Exams often put less emphasis on skills like problem solving, though this is partially due to the nature of the humanities and social sciences, which do not feature problems with mostly objective solutions like many scientific subjects. Nevertheless, exams fail to measure the skill of finding and evaluating information that is becoming increasingly valued in many workforces. Memorization is of limited use in the information age; with modern technology, one is far more likely to find too much information about a subject than not enough. The ability to sort through and critically evaluate information is one of the most important skills that students learn during their time at university, making its absence from most exams all the more conspicuous.

For their ubiquity, whether exams actually measure what they intend to has been subject to almost no scientific scrutiny. A review in The BMJ in 2000 found that final exams in British undergraduate medical programs, though an important step toward achieving a medical licence, had only been subject to scientific review once, receiving a lukewarm assessment for reliability. The reason that testing ‘has always been this way’ is not reason enough to keep exams. Students spend significant amounts of time and money on their degrees— they deserve an education based on evidence, not tradition.

“A review in The BMJ in 2000 found that final exams in British undergraduate medical programs, though an important step toward achieving a medical licence, had only been subject to scientific review once, receiving a lukewarm assessment for reliability.”

Traditional testing is not the only feasible way to evaluate students. Dan Laitsch, an associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University, interviews each of his 35 students per class to agree upon an appropriate final mark, based off of the students’ coursework. While his particular approach may not scale well to classes of 300 or more students, other major research universities have managed to move away from the final exam: At Harvard, in the 2010 academic year, only 23 per cent of undergraduate courses incorporated them, with many courses that did not use them opting for more projects and take-home assignments instead. Even at McGill, PHIL 474 – Phenomenology, incorporates an oral exam in lieu of a written final.

Universities’ roles as educational institutions are changing, whether they are prepared for it or not. For many students, they are not places to gather knowledge for knowledge’s sake, nor the gateway to upper academia: A university degree is preparation—and a prerequisite—for employment. McGill has made encouraging steps toward providing a more practical, experiential learning experience by offering academic credit for internships and offering courses abroad, but institutions change slowly. At McGill and elsewhere, final exams are a relic from a past when undergraduate programs trained future academics, rather than employees. As enrolment rates steadily rise, universities at the leading edge of modern education will reap the benefits. McGill professors must update their course syllabi to meet the changing needs of the modern workforce.

 

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