– Dr. Thomas Mennella –
Tell me how many times this has happened to you at your job: Your boss comes to you and says, “Come with me. We’re going to put you in a quiet room and give you a pen and some paper. You’re going to have exactly 75 minutes to write down everything you know about _______________. It all must be from memory only; you’ll have no other resources to use.”
Let me answer for all of you: never. Exams are the most artificial, impractical and non-real-world experiences possible. Never are we put in a situation that even remotely resembles exams ‘out there’ in adulthood. Yet, we continue to assess student learning in this way. Why?
Here’s what does happen every single day on the job: You’re given a task by a supervisor, and you’re expected to complete it autonomously and effectively using all of the tools and resources at your disposal. You use prior knowledge and skills, to be sure, but you also use online resources, books, articles, etc.
And here’s something else that happens in the real world: you’re given second chances! Only in the rarest of rare exceptions does failure result in being fired from your job. Much more often, your supervisor will look at what you’ve accomplished, explain that it is insufficient, and give you feedback for improvement.
Exams are not only impractical and artificial, but they also cause students an enormous amount of stress and anxiety. And understandably so. Imagine that you worked for your boss for 15 intensive weeks, but the entirety of your assessment at that job came down to four hours of performance. Wouldn’t you be terrified during those four hours, too? Most college courses are fifteen weeks long, and most student learning is assessed via two unit exams and a final: approximately four hours of student work.
Additionally, exams promote bad habits that are completely counterproductive in the ‘real world’. These include:
… and many more.
We effectively train our students to ‘succeed’ using these awful strategies and then send them out into the workforce completely ill-prepared for real learning and real assessment.
In 2020, my professional commitment – my New Year’s resolution – is to create assessment opportunities for my students that are fair and reflect the real world. I am committed to testing my students’ learning in ways that allow them to use multiple resources, allow them to manage their time, allow them to set their own expectations and – most importantly – allow them to fail without failing by getting feedback from me for iterative improvement.
Throughout the year, I’ll be sharing my failures and successes here on FLR as I embrace new strategies for assessing student learning. It will be rocky, I know. But I’m confident that my students will appreciate the efforts and even more confident that they will leave my classes better prepared for adulthood. The world does not need any more test-takers; what we need are problem solvers. And I intend to give my students problems to solve, and I’ll coach them all along the way.