exams and education (open thread!)

I’ve just finished the first batch of finals 😀 There’s another (sadly bigger) batch in a month… but I thought I’d procrastinate a little between then and now. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about exams and their role in education.

I’ve approached my degree in physics with a view to getting a piece of paper at the end. This piece of paper is equivalent to money – with my certificate, I can get a “good” job which will pay me more money than if I didn’t have it. Ergo, it’s desirable. I get that bit of paper by passing exams. I know broadly what the exams will cover, so I don’t need to waste time learning things that won’t come up. I imagine this is roughly how most students treat university.

I think most students (myself included) might be missing the point.

As such, this is an open thread (saves me writing too much :P) – what do you guys think about the exam-driven education system that we have today? How has it affected what you’ve actually learnt? Has it changed how much you’ve enjoyed learning, or indeed what you’ve spent time studying? Is an exam certificate representative of actual educational success? Have your say!

P.S. Not to bias discussion or anything, but my greatest successes (as far as I’m concerned) are those where I haven’t been working for an exam – recently, Cantonese and the saxophone. Just sayin’.


6 thoughts on “exams and education (open thread!)

  1. Hey Eldon,
    How’s it going?

    I actually have said piece of paper for a BS in physics and a following piece of paper for an MS in applied physics is on the way next month since my thesis is done.

    The piece of paper itself is valuable in some sense. But your approach to the process and what you can actually do are probably more important later on.

    My approach was to learn a way of approaching problems, persistence, new ways of looking at the world, etc. If the material was interesting I tended to spend more time on it and learn more about it. The masters degree had a lot more flexibility in the classes that fulfilled requirements.

    But even if it was interesting, I would still play sax every day.

    I would think that what you actually learn and can apply in your job and other situations will be valuable. Your first employer might see your grades, but after that it’s what you have done that will matter.

    For exams, we tended to have extended testing periods so you could actually work out a complicated problem. They ended up being fairly representative of what you could do. A test that takes a few hours is pretty short and may or may not accurately show what you know. This is somewhat specific to physics.

    If the professor knows what they’re doing, the test ought to cover the ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking. And likely make you apply them in a somewhat new situation.

    But I also want to get away from physics for a bit now that I’m done with school, so the degree will literally just be a piece of paper in the immediate future.

    Not everyone has the determination to get this particular piece of paper with the physics bit on it though, so that says something once you have it. Hopefully you will have learned some valuable things and the exams-centric system won’t have stifled that much.


    • Hey Neal,

      Had no idea you were a physicist too – props for finishing your thesis and MS! I think it’s a test of foresight to study consistently rather than cramming at the last minute – as you say, it’s better in the long run to spread out the studying.

      Usually, physics papers do show how well you know your stuff – after all, it’s either right or wrong – but at the same time (certainly at the uni I’m at) there’s considerable scope for just learning the types of exam question that come up (thereby reduced the work that needs doing to pass the exam). I think for one module, the professor asked the same question each year, only fiddling the numbers slightly – most people only learnt how to do that question.

      Overall though, I do think I’ve learnt a lot – just not (usually) when there was an exam right around the corner, so it hasn’t been too stifling!

      Cheers as always for taking the time to reply 😀 hope it all goes well once you’ve finished at uni for the time being!


  2. Hey Eldon,

    throughout high school and college, I always did consistently well on examinations and quizzes, but to tell you the truth….I ABSOLUTELY HATE THEM!!!

    I feel that if there are too many exams and tests in a given course, then that just takes away all the fun. I seriously become less enthusiastic about the material and actually, in classes like these, I tend to learn less in the long run. See, I have a photographic memory and it is easy for me to memorize material for tests and exams quickly. The only problem is that I then quickly forget all that information a few days after the test. That’s not what I call learning… :/

    The best classes that I’ve ever taken in college would only have two exams for the entire semester: a midterm and a final (I think that is sufficient). I feel that I learn a lot more from lectures, taking notes, and group discussions.

    Seriously, I think there needs to be some changes in education these days.


    • Hey Alysia,

      I definitely agree that exams are a good way to make courses less fun. I also agree that they tend to encourage cramming (everyone knows they shouldn’t start studying a few days before an exam, but startlingly few people seem to take note – like with your Spanish :S).

      Interesting that you’re okay with having a few exams – you wouldn’t cast them out of the window wholesale? 😛


      • haha, I actually didn’t even think of that as an option. Now that you’ve mentioned it though…In the ideal classroom setting, I would like to do away with all examinations 🙂 I think they are a complete waste of time.


  3. Pingback: What Do You Really Know? « thousand mile journey

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