My “Tirade Against Exams”

I try to keep an eye on how people get to this blog, using WordPress and Google tools, and I especially take note of old posts that are still getting traffic.

Apparently the most popular of my old posts is one I wrote almost two years ago about university exams.

I’ve edited the post a little, and if you didn’t read it yet, you might want to check it out:

A Tirade Against Exams

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So why are exams a bad idea when you want to check whether a bunch of science undergrads understood what you taught them? Well, one part of the problem should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of science:exams are not very good experiments. There is no way to control for interference of irrelevant, extraneous factors. When scientists conduct a study, in any field and with any methodology, they seek to control for irrelevant interferences. For example, when psychologists test hand-eye coordination, they’ll do something like only taking right-handed people with healthy hands and eyes, in order to make sure that the results aren’t skewed by irrelevant differences between individuals.

You can’t do anything like that in exams.

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I’ve also changed the blogs settings so that comments are now open on old posts, too (they used to close automatically after two months). Feel free to rekindle the discussion on the Tirade, or on any other old post.

2 thoughts on “My “Tirade Against Exams””

  1. my favorite is “Replace some exams with real work.”

    one thing you don’t mention is the rampant cheating that goes on, which makes exam results even more skewed, and really cheats the students who don’t cheat — because they spend so much more time preparing and then take their chances with their grade. i have a professor friend who laments that s/he is unable to expel students for cheating any longer — it is so rampant and, at some level, expected by the administration, that she is forced to allow them to continue in the program. if they left, of course, the university would be out their tuition.

    1. Thanks, that’s a very good point! You’re totally right of course, cheating might even be the worst intervening factor of all.
      It just serves to underscore how meaningless the results of the whole system are, and considering the serious strain they put people under, I just don’t see how anyone in their right mind could think it’s worth it!