Testing is not teaching

Talk to any college student about their major and you’ll likely get an excited response filled with lengthy rhetoric about goals and dreams. They’ll tell you what they want to do, who they want to be, so on and so forth.

Watch those same students walk into class every morning. They’re not happy or excited. They’re just here to check off another requirement.

With hurricane season upon us, students are constantly checking weather alerts. Not because they’re concerned about a storm, quite the contrary. They hope classes will be cancelled. Watch their excitement if classes happen to be cancelled for the day.

Why is it that students with such big dreams, who love their majors so much, get so excited when they don’t have class?

As college students, I’m sure we have all pulled all-nighters studying for tests on material we haven’t learned. Within one week of my Summer B term, I had already done it myself.

What makes us do this? Why don’t we take the time to actually learn the material instead of partaking in last-minute cramming? If tests and exams are such essential parts of our grades, why do we procrastinate on preparing for them?

Perhaps, the answer is contained in the question itself. Tests and exams are such a huge chunk of our total grade. Let’s take at look a real example of a grading break down from my BSC 1010C course this fall. The final grade is broken down as such: 75% exams, 10% labs, 10% quizzes and 5% attendance.

Right from the start, we can see that 85% of the total grade is made up of exams and quizzes. When it comes to this type of grading scale, the main reason students learn material is to pass the tests, rather than out of genuine interest for the subject.

That’s what’s backwards about the American education system.

At an institutional level, from kindergarten to college, our education system teaches us that passing the test is more important than learning the material.

Now, in order to pass the test, students usually have to learn the material, right? Wrong. Students aren’t necessarily learning, they are memorizing.

It’s not long-term memorization, either. Long-term memorization could be considered learning, but today’s students only short-term memorize the necessary information. It’s the same reason that today’s adults will tell you, “I haven’t taken algebra since high school,” when asked to do a simple math problem. That’s because, in high school, they were short-term memorizing their algebra material just to pass their tests. College students do the same thing.

In a rushed attempt to get an ‘A’ on the next exam, we memorize as much of the course content as possible. Within days — even hours — after the exam, we’ve most likely forgotten at least half the material.

Sure, passing the tests guarantees us good grades. However, good grades don’t ensure that we gain the actual knowledge that the course is supposed to teach us. So, what if we flipped that around? What if students focused on learning instead of passing tests?

We would have an education system full of students who are able to both long-term memorize and pass the exams. Students would be so caught up with learning that the test grades would come naturally.