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testing administration

June 24, 2006 by Saar Drimer

Exam administration in large is fundamentally flawed because it
1) tests mostly for memory capability rather than analytical ability, and
2) tests for performance under extreme pressure.

Both are very bad metrics for predicting the academic ability of a person because in the real-world these conditions are rarely present, BOCTAOE. And sure, memory is somewhat of an indicator for capability but not without the other (and besides, we now have Google to compensate.) Einstein said that “education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” In other words, education = understanding, not memory.

I’m a poor test taker, so you might question my motivation for changing the system although I honestly feel that what I propose is fair for all and a much better indicator for capability than current methods.

All exams should be
1) open material (anything paper allowed except for the one in front of the person sitting next to you,) and
2) loosely bounded by time (say, x3 the present settings.)

This will allow for
1) hard questions based on understanding rather than memory, and
2) elimination of the pressure element that is a differentiation factor that has very little to do with real life requirements.

The only down side to this is that it requires more work from the people who write the exams, which is the very reason why it will never be implemented. I had two teachers at UC Santa Cruz who implemented the above; they were the best educators I have ever had (if you are curious who they are, email me.)


  1. Helen says:

    While I was training for my stint in the ed biz, we were told to be alert while creating tests that we not make the structure and process of the test itself part of the testing – above and beyond the subject matter on which the student is being tested. I know what I mean when I say this, but I am not at all sure I am being clear!

    Of course, this advice is ignored all over the place, from individual educators to state mandated tests.

    Am I to take it you are now in exams? What will you do when the term ends?

  2. Saar Drimer says:

    No, I don’t have exams. However, the system of exam taking for undergraduates in Cambridge is so utterly nonsensical that I had to chime in with the way I believe exams should be administered. Maybe I’ll write about it when I fully understand it; they take me it takes years to fully grasp the notion; it’s beyond logic.

  3. SF says:

    I do agree with you for most science and math courses (hey you cannot find a worst test taker than me). However, the tests for the “air traffic control” or MD students must measure their ability to work under pressure and time constrains. In conclusion, I believe suitable tests should be tailored for each course solely by its instructor, with no pressure from the bureaucrats in the university administration (good luck with that).

  4. I didn’t realize you went to UCSC. My kid sister just graduated from there (College 9 [donors sought to buy a better name] in History, European emphasis) and the beauty of the campus is still amazing. There were plenty of cellular biologists graduating – and one lonely ‘spiritual ecologist’.
    Keep up the efforts – grading is just there to discourage those without perseverance.

  5. Gideon Drimer says:

    If you are mentioning Einstein, here is another one of him from January 20, 1955
    “I am opposed to examinations, they only deter from the interest in studying. No more than two exams should be given throughout a student’s career (college). I would hold seminars and if the young people are interested and listen, I would give them a diploma”

  6. Saar Drimer says:

    Sure, in some cases there are actual job requirements for performance under pressure. These are well defined. Comparative literature or computer science are not amongst them. The only time a historian will be required to perform under pressure is when they are in The DaVinci Code movie.

    Yes, did my BSc there and lived there on-off for about 6 years. Campus is beautiful, at least it used to be. See, during my junior and senior years heavy construction begun… up to then, the buildings were well distributed and hidden in the redwood forest. I belonged to Porter College, but I never lived there…

    This would be a great system if it could practically work; unfortunately, it can not, IMO.

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