Let’s Talk About Tests
By: Connor Lenahan
Before we say anything, I have to qualify my thoughts a bit. One thing will become very clear once you read my rambling, possibly incoherent, likely ridiculous theories about testing as it exists today. I completely and utterly admit that the way I have approached this issue is unconventional. I realize that changing the way that testing is approached currently, at least in the United States, to my preferred method of academic challenge would be quite close to impossible. It is a pipe dream. It’s essentially crazy. I admit to this now.
However, I also want to pose the below for the sake of assessing a world that is changing now more rapidly than ever before. Standard practices have now been amended to allow alternative methods never before thought possible. A completely unrelated example: Netflix now allows users the ability to cater their own television schedules for themselves with ease. Technology is the catalyst for this change, and for just about everything in our lives now. We live in the most fascinating age of science that has ever existed, and this is coming from a guy that barely understands the principals of how the device I’m using to type this essay obtains a charge, let alone process information.
But technology is the reason why I’m writing this in more ways than one. So that’s where we must begin.
As I type away at my laptop many of my friends and fellow students are taking tests not just here at Boston University, but around the country. Schedules vary all over, especially in the Northeast, where the blizzards caused the existing road map for classes to be thrown out to the point that classes will be held this Saturday to make up missed lectures. The snow was the reason why this pat Monday I took my midterm exam for my class on Television Theory and Criticism. It’s the reason why my roommate Patrick McKay took an exam on Finance last evening until 10PM. I’d much rather take the test I actually did than try to tackle Pat’s, but for greater reasons than simple academics – simply, I don’t know any of the information for his exam.
The reason I’d rather my exam, despite the fact it presented its own challenges, is because it was an essay test. This should not come as a surprise, but I like to write. Again, this being the 442nd article published on Unbreakable in a row, this isn’t exactly a mystery. But I have stood by the following belief since I was in high school: I think that multiple choice tests, and the way students are administered said tests are entirely outdated.
Frankly, I am not huge on tests in general. This is in some ways a product of bias. Of course it is. To claim any other explanation without at least acknowledging bias would be irresponsible. We are, as a human race, predisposed to be biased against anything that brings us stress. There is not a person alive that enjoys the process of being forced to prove knowledge with huge stakes on the line, save for Alex Trebek.
I completely understand, however, that there must be tests in schooling and, generally, all types of life out of necessity. Yes, it may be annoying to take a test to get a drivers license, but for the sake of humanity it’s necessary. Simply doling out licenses based off of trust and appearance of knowledge would be irresponsible. Tests must exist. They are the figure by which we measure academic success. However, with changes to the world we live in, especially recently, I find myself routinely questioning the tests I’ve had to take in my life time.
Here’s what my problem is. In front of my right now are both my laptop and phone. Both devices did not, in their current incarnations, exist until I was in seventh grade. This was the first year that the iPhone was released. Because of phones like the iPhone, common smartphones, people are now able to pull up information quicker than ever before. I have at my disposal, within seconds, completed lists of things that would normally not be available to people without deep, time consuming research.
I can tell you every winner of the NBA MVP award that has ever been handed out within seconds thanks to a cursory Google search. I could read you the lyrics to any song in existence simply by tagging “lyrics” to the end of a song title in a search bar. The access to information of all kinds in 2015 has never been seen before in history. With technological capabilities only growing with time and research, the ceiling on the information and speed of access will only climb higher with time.
This is what runs through my head when my professors announce to the class that we must shut off our cellphones before taking our multiple choice exams. I get that you don’t want us to simply pull up the answers, but in an age where we could quite literally do such a thing, isn’t this missing a huge part of our life?
My problem with tests comes down primarily to multiple choice exams. This allows for a few different things to happen. For one, I am being challenged to see how well I have memorized information. This is what a multiple choice test is – memorization. Next comes the most frustrating part of the experience for me, the answers themselves. More credit is due to teachers that are capable of writing objective questions for exams. This is much harder than it seems. A test succeeds when all of the answers have one correct choice. When questions have an argument to be made about different options, or asks the dreaded “Choose the best answer” inquiry, then the question fails. This is a glaring design flaw. If I am able to argue that another answer outside of the intended one is correct then the question is not a fair example to how I have memorized the information. That is not revolutionary, that’s logic.
But a further problem with multiple choice comes from the ultimate Catch-22 that the process presents for students. If students are able to eliminate answers that are clearly wrong then suddenly there could be a 50/50 gamble on answers and suddenly save someone that doesn’t outright know the answer. Honestly this process has saved me on hundreds of questions in my academic career and would almost certainly be the case for everyone I know. However, this creates a fundamental question with the exam itself: How is this a fair and accurate way of measuring academic success for students if guessing is possible for success?
The odds are far from favorable, but do exist that I could walk into a multiple choice test blind to any information and get a 100% by filling in random bubbles. This just doesn’t appear to be fair to the kids that slave over books to know everything that they may end up with equal grades to me when I show up to the test completely in the dark. I admit, this scenario is not likely, but the fact it exists is slightly troubling.
Let’s just see if we can agree on the following: Memorization is not the be all end all goal of education. Or at least it shouldn’t be. I would, any day of the week, rather trust someone with deep comprehension of an idea rather than someone that simply passed the class. Matt Gronsky, a friend of mine from Abington Heights, is now an engineering major at Penn State and, without question, understands the principals of chemistry better than I do. But I did not do poorly in my career with chemistry. This is because before every test I would get good enough with the information to be able to fill out the exam sheet. I have not retained much to any of it because I knew then and know now I won’t need to. Yet I end up with he same grade as Matt, who wants to do this for a career.
This is why my final exam for my Television History course that I took this past fall was my favorite exam of all time. It was a perfect blend of testing for comprehension while also doing away with the now-impossible idea that we don’t have every multiple choice answer available as fast as Verizon could download them. The test provided eight questions, four of which had to be answered in essay format. The test also allowed a sheet of information, front and back sides available, to better answer questions and accurately recall dates, names, and laws.
I do not mean this in a gloating way whatsoever, but I did better on that exam than any other final I have taken in the past eight years and the margin is not particularly close. That’s because my professor, David Kociemba, understood how to make sure his students learned and how to make them prove it. I’m not against the idea of making me prove that I know what I’m talking about. I’m, oddly, against a system that can allow me to bluff my way though things, get lucky, and provide similar results.
Essays, and writing in general, are an amazing test as to how well someone comprehends what they are working with. I do not write articles on politics ever because that is not my area of expertise. I’ll give you The Simpsons Bracket over nine days because I can discuss the intricacies of that program better than I can describe my own hair color.
Further, essays also open up a brand new world of education in the 21st century. If I were writing a final paper I would want to be able to Google information about it to ensure accuracy. There isn’t a writer alive, academic, casual, and everything in-between, that writes without consulting some form of reference. To do so would be setting oneself up for failure immediately. This is because trying to remember every piece of history is impossible by design of the brain. Instead, essays allow people to search for information and learn the topic to the point they can discuss it with some level of expertise.
Multiple choice exams just force me to stare at flash cards until I can correctly answer “Mitochondria is…?” with “B. The power house of the cell.” Multiple choice exams became outdated as soon as the internet made it easy to answer every non-existential question in existence.
A fact of life for everyone that has gone through school or is currently going through is that grades, in many ways, control what is possible for us in our lives. Better grades unlock better opportunities at every junction. This isn’t a steadfast rule, but it’s also not far from reality and the normal course of life.
With this in mind, the question becomes how you want those grades to come around. For me, I would take essays and essay exams every single time. I want control over my destiny as much as possible. If I fail on an essay exam then I can sleep knowing that it was on me. I get infinitely more frustrated when I do poorly on a multiple choice exam that I could explain my reasoning for against the “correct” answer.
This is simple – if grades are going to control much of this stage of my life then I want to control my grades. This is why I want essay tests to become the standard. They allow for the explanation of reasoning, encourage communication, and prove comprehension. From a standpoint of improving education the move towards essays and away from multiple choice seems simple. It will not happen, but we at least have to talk about it.
In a perfect world every change would be made towards better educating people nationwide. Smarter people lead to a smarter community and nothing negative has come from a society with heightened intelligence. Yes, problems still remain with the student end – how willing a student will be to try in school is a factor always – but from an institutional level things can be changed. There is control there. There are ways to allow students to better learn subjects and improve as communicators and people as well. There are ways to adapt to the world of technology we live in now that allow a more realistic-to-the-era testing platform. There is a way we could make this whole system better.
I know it’s crazy. I know it’ll never happen. But it’s at least worth thinking about. Wouldn’t you agree?