With more than half of the semester gone, most students have taken one or two midterms already. Despite the dread and the anxiety that exams entail, they are an integral part of our learning and The Wellesley News editorial staff wants to think carefully about what types of assignments and testing are more beneficial towards our learning.
When it comes to exams, political science exams ask students to explain the significance of vocabulary from readings in the test. English exams ask students to identify passages with their speakers. Biology classes often ask to define principles stated within books, instead of applying ideas. Although these exams all aim to test student’s grasp of the material, students often end up memorizing a lot of information to prepare for these exams that they later forget. Paper assignments and essay-based or open book exams are much more beneficial to encourage students to engage with the material in class in depth without resorting to memorization, especially when it comes to humanities and social sciences.
All of the examples of memorization included above asks students to “explain the significance” of this or that. This means that Wellesley midterms that ask students to memorize aim to test how well students are understanding content, and to force students to make sure that they are understanding. While exams that ask for longer answers are much better than straight-out memorization, they still fall short of demonstrating understanding. Wellesley students often find themselves memorizing the significance of terms as well — a significance that is often determined by a professor in class and scribbled down in our notes. When midterms and finals come around, we find ourselves having to know large amounts of information for all of our three or four exams, we do not go back and read entire texts. We reread our class notes and learn by heart the passages, artwork, or biological processes that we discussed in class. We memorize the significance of terms as determined by lecture and class discussion. By the time we are eating Thanksgiving turkey or gleefully opening Christmas presents, we will have forgotten most of it.
Many Wellesley professors have worked to find a way around memorization. Courses often ask students to prepare a question about the content in preparation for class. Others allow students to have a cheat sheet in exams to make sure that they are spending time on understanding how to use equations instead of memorizing equations themselves. Sometimes exams are more like problem sets in which students have to apply what they know to an entirely new example and think critically about it. Some exams are open book, not testing whether students know dates and places of a historical event, but whether they can write a thorough essay on a subject. Professors can also rely on repetition, not requiring students to memorize material for exams but making them practice often in homework and class. And of course, professors assign papers that ask students to explore a topic in depth.
All of these methods are significantly more effective in helping students learn than memorization-based exams. For instance, if we want to make sure that everyone is doing the reading and understanding it, asking students to hand in analytical questions before class is a good way to nudge students to read and analyze on their own. We recognize that this is a highly time consuming method for professors, who would have to read questions before class and incorporate them into the lecture. Substituting analytical papers for memorization tests is a good alternative. It is not one that all students are a fan of, but the value of essays lies in the fact that they replace memorization with critical, independent thinking. And finally, tests that are structured more like problem sets, or provide students with a cheat sheet or open book are similarly an effective way to confirm learning without requiring memorization.
The Wellesley News editorial staff does not aim to criticize testing in general, we understand why tests are necessary and useful at Wellesley. We want to stress that memorization is ineffective and comes up regularly on our syllabi. Professors often do not consider their tests to ask for memorization, but under stress and time constraint, students often resort to memorizing meaning, analysis, and significance. We want to push our syllabi away from memorization and closer to in-depth learning. Thorough learning would not only make each class more fulfilling, it would also allow courses to build on each other because students can remember and make connections more easily. Let’s pave better and more thorough paths towards information in our heads, information that does not stand in isolation but is connected.