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Exams do not weigh true knowledge of students

There are obvious signs that finals are starting. Fellow students rarely seen in class are feverishly asking to copy notes in the Library. In addition, Starbucks double shot espressos are becoming a replacement for a good night’s sleep. While certainly not immune to the curse of finals week and perhaps using it as a way of putting off studying, I had an epiphany of sorts. I came to the realization that the way students are tested is just plain ineffective.

What is the big draw for assessing learning based on multiple-choice tests? Success in the labor market is no more a multiple-choice test than it is fill-in-the-blank. Yet presumably many, if not most college students are here to further their chances at getting a decent job. If this is the case, bubbling in a Scantron or other forms of rote learning are not the best way to prepare for the future.

Admittedly, these forms of testing are convenient for both professors and students. Especially during finals, professors are under a deadline to turn in grades by a certain time. But it is hard to justify such a deadline if it supports a testing system that doesn’t adequately check students’ critical-thinking abilities. If the timeline to turn in grades is that restrictive, the academic calendar needs reworking.

For students, it is easier to study for multiple-choice tests. Normally, a couple answers can be discounted as ridiculous, leaving few real choices. Thus the test just becomes a challenge of process of elimination rather than comprehension.

In addition, some students may perceive a side benefit of multiple-choice mania and fill-in-the-blank tests as facilitating the “brain dump” after testing. Don’t believe me? Try to think about your finals at the beginning of June, and it will be difficult just to remember what was asked.

If this is truly a problem, then what are the alternatives? It seems inconceivable that the complete elimination of these testing methods will occur anytime soon. Higher education is quite resistant to fundamental changes. But this doesn’t mean professors can’t wean themselves off the convenience these inadequate tests provide.

Sure, there will be a collective groan, but students need to do more writing. It is a skill that is often deficient but important in the job market. In a 2004 report, the National Commission on Writing found that “remedying deficiencies in writing may cost American firms as much as $3.1 billion annually.”

Open-ended questions that test students’ abilities to reason and think critically about their courses is one place to start. This will allow professors to blend the necessity of knowing core theorems, principles and schools of thought along with the challenge of blending these elements into a cohesive essay. As one of my professors explains it, this is the “learn-by-writing” approach. It works.

Students should also be required to pick a topic of interest and write an undergraduate thesis. This would be observed by academic departments so as not to be an addition to tests. The topic wouldn’t need to be something specific to their major, but it could be. Chemistry majors may choose to discuss the challenges researchers face in reporting ethical results, while math majors could pursue the evolution of game theory in strategic decision making.

The Honors College has a similar requirement of its students, and it’s a great way to learn. Rather than being an audience to a professor’s lecture, this system requires students to actively participate in finding a topic and a thesis mentor. The product that is produced is not so much a culmination of learning, but could be a stepping stone to further academic work or possibly a career.

But alas, these changes won’t affect what happens next week in classrooms all over campus. Students will be asked to bubble in their answers or fill in a key vocabulary word in the space provided. Just because they do it doesn’t make it the best way. As a sign that hung in Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in political science.