problem of university exams

Much is required of students at university. Keeping up with and internalizing lecture material, undergoing further reading to widen knowledge, attending scheduled sessions, and ensuring you remain sane in it all. The component of organized study that students seem to dread the most, and maybe for good reason, are exams. Exams are a very good way to test an individual’s knowledge. A prompt for an answer is a good recall technique to ensure someone knows something, and in enough detail, however from my experience, examiners can lose the plot entirely when writing exams. Instead of testing students on their understanding of a topic and their reasoning ability, they may get caught up in simply asking recall questions, and making them obscure as their way of making it harder. This is possibly the worst type of testing and does more harm than good in the long run.

On my course, examiners seem to be more interested in if I can recall how many people were diagnosed with a certain disease last year, than the actual pathogenesis (how it develops) of the disease. This was a genuine question on a year 2 university level paper. If this is the way we test students, what type of student comes out on top? People scratch their heads as to why university students are leaving with better and better scores yet they seem to know less and less. I know people who simply memorise every last drop of information from lecture slides, which on my course are half baked excuses for an explanation, yet still come out with amazing results. If however you were to ask them about the basis, or the underlying concept of a topic, their answer or lack of it may make you embarrassed to be admitted to the same place of study. This is because, often, lecture slides aren’t nearly enough especially when it seems lecturers are putting effort into making lower quality, harder to understand slides by using shorthand English and omitting important underlying concepts. An example is below.

These are 2 slides created to explain what heat can do to tissue. At first glance it looks fairly comprehensive and informative but imagine building a career on this knowledge, which is what you hope to do when you go to university. Most of it can be inferred by the everyday person so coming from a PhD lecturer, it seems like a bit of a mockery to other educators.

Then to test people based on this knowledge means either most people fail due to not having enough information, or most pass due to the exam depth being equivalent to the lecture depth. In either case, students are always worse off either from having terrible knowledge of a subject and exam results that lead them to believe otherwise, or failing flat out as a result of their terrible depth of knowledge.

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