Diminishing Returns on Exams

Exams, short for examinations, are supposed to test whether the examinees (i.e. students) know and understand the material that has been presented to them. In high school, you take exams during the semester as a separation between each topic taught; once you’ve completed the exam, you move on to the next topic. You may have a final exam at the end of the semester (i.e. before a long holiday), but you’re given ample materials and preparation to study for it by the teacher. In college, you may have a similar exam structure to what you experienced in high school, but you become responsible for the majority of the exam materials and studying efforts. Graduate school exams are a much more amorphous system.

In graduate school, at least the ones I’ve attended, examination styles are inconsistent from course to course. You may have multiple exams throughout the semester, you may have one giant exam at the end, or you may have no exams at all. The design of the course is entirely up to the discretion of the course director. What’s more, if a course is taught by more than one lecturer, each lecturer is commonly responsible for writing the exam questions on the material they presented. This can result in a single exam comprising a multitude of question styles, formats, writing requirements, and expectations of knowledge comprehension.

As an example, on an exam I took yesterday, one lecturer asked you to write down the definition and relevance of 10 terms discussed during their lectures, while another asked you detail the experimental setups required to study certain physiological functions in a given animal model. Each question type requires knowledge of the information presented in lecture, but preparation for each involves different types of studying (i.e. memorization versus method design) and study time required to become comfortable answering the question. While sitting for the exam, I may be able to remember the definitions faster than I can design a few experiments, but it may take me longer to complete the first question because I have to physically write down 10 definitions, as opposed to writing down a few bullet points about each experiment’s design.

For the purposes and expectations of a graduate school education, I fundamentally understand why our exams can be so varied. We’re expected to have a diverse set of knowledge and skills, and we’re expected to be able to adapt to any research problem/question we encounter. Our ability to answer a variety of questions on a myriad of research topics can evaluate our preparedness for taking on a research project for our thesis, dissertation, etc. My frustration comes from the sheer length of time and energy that is required for us to take some of our exams.

As a continuing example, in the exam I took yesterday, we were tested on material covered in 13 one-hour lectures, valued at 260 points, and covering 17 pages of questions. Our previous exam for this class covered 14 lectures and was valued at 280 points. Math aficionados out there will notice that divides to 20 points for each lecture.

The first exam took students between 1.5-2 hours to complete. The first person to finish the exam yesterday did so in roughly 2 hours; it took me 2.5 hours to finish and 2/3 of the class was still working when I left. This class is designed to be an hour long.

When an exam requires that much time to finish, it is no longer a test of comprehension, it is a test of endurance.

During a 2.5 hour test which requires 17 pages of writing about both related and unrelated scientific topics, your hand cramps multiple times, your head and neck begin to lock into their hunched over position, and your brain gets tired of generating answers to questions you have never been asked before.

After 90 minutes of taking the exam, I could feel myself stop trying, simply because I was tired. It was a Friday afternoon, at the end of a long week in which I had spent tens of hours studying for this exam, in addition to laboratory/research responsibilities and unexpected events (these included a flat tire and a mandatory evacuation from my house, so no biggie). My exact experiences leading up to this exam weren’t the same as those of my classmates, but I’m convinced that every single one of them would support my assertion: there came a point when the exam we took yesterday stopped being an accurate measure of our understanding the material.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be taught and examined on a wide variety of topics; the breadth and depth of the knowledge we’re tested on is a discussion for another time. I’m saying that if we are to be tested on such a variety of topics, it should not be in manner that requires so much time and energy to complete. I do not feel that my results on the exam yesterday will be an accurate reflection of my knowledge of the tested material. For the last third of that exam, I could not think clearly and became only concerned with finishing the exam and leaving because I wanted to spend as little time in that mental state as possible. I am convinced that yesterday’s exam did not satisfy the fundamental purpose of an examination and am left asking myself a troubling question: what was the point of the exercise?


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