How do we measure knowledge?

Why is examination the measure by which we judge an individual’s understanding of material? I have had this inability to take tests well since I was a child. It’s not to say I’m unintelligent or I can’t have a conversation about the material being covered, what it does say is I am a very poor test taker. I have had classes (some very recently) where examination was the end-all-be-all of performance measurement. Pure memorization of safety principles that can and should be referenced in a manual before it is applied in practice just to be sure you don’t kill anyone by performing addition where you should have been performing subtraction.

Instead why can’t performance by gauged by assignments and discussion with the instructor? I would prefer a challenging take home exam to a standardized in class assessment any day of the week. Sure – it’s more challenging to grade, but students can take more away from something they have had time to sit and reflect on in depth rather than having to cram the material into their heads for an exam that they will forget 15 minutes after they leave the room.

Why can’t knowledge be measured by the ability to carry on intelligent conversation and contribute ideas to the field? Why must so much weight be placed on one task?

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6 Responses to How do we measure knowledge?

  1. Sihui Ma says:

    Hi, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I prefer the take-home exams too, even if they are more challenging and time-consuming than the 2-hour exam in class. I got nervous before and during the test, which impacts my performance on the test. But I always respect the students who are test takers. They have a better control of their sentiment in face of tension, and they master the knowledge better no matter they memorized it or learned it.

  2. Betsy Haugh says:

    I like your ideas in this post, particularly the point about referencing a manual before putting something into action. If a doctor is unsure which drug to prescribe or give a patient, wouldn’t we want them to look it up rather than guess? Of course, but on a multiple choice test they may determine if they pass a class in med school, they would end up guessing if they were unsure.

    The question of how we measure knowledge is often one I consider in the realm of standardized testing. As a masters’ student considering going on for a PhD, I wonder how much my GRE scores will truly matter on those applications. As a communications student, I also wonder why anyone would care how well I do on a math standardized test. I read a book by Daniel Pink last semester in which he discussed something called the Rainbow Project, a testing alternative for the SAT meant to measure creative aptitude, among other items. I think tests like this might be more useful for painting a picture of a student or applicant. Testing has been around since the beginning of education, and it isn’t going anywhere; however, as education changes, the testing atmosphere should as well.

    (I elaborated more on this point in a blog post for Preparing the Future Professoriate last semester, too, which you can read here if you’re interested:

  3. rossmccarthy says:

    Once again, you’ve hit nail on the head. Being that we’ve had similar classes, the tests we taken gauged nothing but how well we memorized random facts (that can easily be found in a manual or an internet source). Now, I don’t necessarily think these tests are necessarily inappropriate for all degrees (e.g., medicine), however, making these type of tests standard for all departments, doesn’t consider the potential damage. In engineering, these sort tests are nothing more than easy to grade. For me, these tests raise my stress levels and increase the potential for me to make mistakes that I otherwise would not make.

  4. Rabih says:

    I agree with you. A lot of things could make the testing biased against the student due to the exam setting. I don’t think that take-home exams are the solution because some (maybe a lot) of students cheat, but definitely a good conversion between the student and the instructor about the material would be a nice test.

  5. qzhilei says:

    Thanks for you topic and critical opinions. Exam is not the only measures for your course performance. Because some students are not comfortable with sitting in a classroom and high timing pressure, which will finally affect students’ performance. I agree with your opinion for taking-home exam opinion. It can tell how the performance of students is because they have enough time to think about questions and make preparation through different tools such as internet, books and other references. The main purpose of knowing knowledge is that we can understand it and know how to use it, but not only for answers of questions.

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