absurb exams we have to do at university

In my biomedical sciences degree, in order to qualify onto my final year, I had to pass a competency test which was designed to test my ability to perform basic laboratory tasks in microbiology (bacteria stuff), biochemistry (chemical stuff), and pathology (looking at tissue under microscope mostly). The three exam sections would be done back to back and would last just over 3 hours.

In the pathology section one of the tasks required you to prove you could focus a microscope on a tissue sample such as a liver cross-section. To pass, examiners had us draw out what we saw under the microscope, and if our drawing was poor, we would fail the section and possibly fail the pathology component. If only 1 section was failed, the entire 3 sections (biochem, microbiology and pathology) would need to be resat. Something as simple as drawing an image, which human tissue is very hard to replicate on paper, was potentially the deciding factor in having to take a 3-hour exam again. This would be the equivalent of testing a pilots vision by asking him to provide an accurate and detailed representation of an urban landscape from an aerial view, and if done to an unsatisfactory level, wont be allowed to qualify any further.

This is an example of a liver slide with cancer (metastatic carcinoma) that one may see under a microscope. Now try replicating that on a piece of paper.

Replicating such an image can be quite challenging due to the abnormal shapes present, and the almost erratic repetition of structures. As such, this shouldn’t be a requirement for biology students, at least, not in this context.

Designing an exam for a course should be something that is done with careful consideration as the people that may excel in a poorly designed exam may not be the people that you would necessarily consider experts in a topic. A simpler and more accurate way to grade that component would’ve been to simply come round and check if our microscopes were focused properly but in an attempt to take a more creative approach, missed the point of the exercise and decreased the validity of the exam. In the famous words of Einstein, “make everything as simple as possible, not simpler”.

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