Is It Time to Rethink Our Exams?

I’ve been ruminating lately about tests and wondering if our thinking about them hasn’t gotten into something of a rut. We give exams for two reasons. First, we use exams to assess the degree to which students have mastered the content and skills of the course. But like students, we can get too focused on this grade-generating function of exams. We forget the second reason (or take it for granted): exams are learning events. Most students study for them, perhaps not as much or in the ways we might like, but before an exam most students are engaged with the content. Should we be doing more to increase the learning potential inherent in exam experiences?
We tend to see exams as isolated events, not learning experiences that can be enhanced by other activities within the course. I’m convinced that a well-structured exam review, one in which the students are doing the reviewing, not the teacher, can motivate test preparation, promote good exam study habits, and effectively integrate and add coherence to large chunks of course content. I believe we can structure exam debriefs to help students learn what they didn’t know or missed on the exam. We cannot accomplish that goal if teachers “go over” the most-missed questions. Students are the ones who made the mistakes. They need to correct them. We also can use debrief sessions to encourage examination of the strategies and approaches students used to prepare for …