Take it from a PhD candidate
Every exam period, students from all walks of life ponder the usefulness of exams. Are they worth the burden on student mental health?
Generally, sit-down, written exams test students’ ability to memorize and regurgitate information. While professors can alter the exam format to elicit more thoughtful responses — i.e., responses that draw out creative interpretations of complex ideas — that, rather than display a strong capacity for pure rote memorization, demonstrate a keen awareness of the class content, they still require the traditional, stressful practice of meticulous memorization. This critique is not to say exams cannot be useful. It is obvious they do something. For subjects that require quick recall of specific information, exams are incredibly useful. However, if the goal of university is to both encourage deep learning and provide evidence of substantive knowledge about a subject matter, exams are not the answer.
I concluded that sit-down exams are pedagogically limited while thinking on the matter as I developed the syllabus for my first sessional lecturer appointment for the July–August semester. Perhaps I am biased by the Platonist in me.
In Plato’s Meno, Sokrates argues that memorization neither demonstrates unique intelligence nor knowledge of a subject matter; the capacity to regurgitate information is an ability all intelligent creatures can perform. It’s one of the first things children learn to do as they develop speech. Alternatively, mice are famous for their abilities to memorize and perform their memorizations. If the goal of university is demonstrating that students are as performatively capable as children and mice, then exams are perfect.
Furthermore, exams create an unrealistic environment. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, no occupation requires you to lock yourself in a room bereft of resources (or minimal resources if we’re considering open-book exams) to complete a task. Or, as a professor at my alma mater always said, “professors don’t lock themselves in a room without their books and write papers, so why should I expect you to do the same?” Exams, simply speaking, aren’t realistic, and consequently, they are unfair. Unfair to ESL students and students with disabilities. There is no arbitrary standardized, measured accommodation that can make an exam “fair” — they are simply, unjust.
Thus, I am left with take-home final assignments as a good remedy for the failure of sit-down, written examination. Take-home exams, or similar non-research-based assignments that ask students to demonstrate what they have learned allow students to, as a PhD friend of mine says, “stew in the information.” Independent take-home assessment allows students the time and space to develop their understanding unburdened by the stressful, fast-paced time slot of a final exam session.
Finally, a final assignment is realistic. Every occupation that requires a university degree has deadlines. These deadlines are in the span of days, weeks, and months, not hours (unless you leave it to the last minute — diamonds are made under pressure, so why wouldn’t it create a stellar final assignment?).
In summation, there must be some apparatus that encourages independent learning beyond the lecture itself, and exams simply are not the answer. Out with exams, in with final assignments.