Rethinking Examinations

Note: This article was published in LinkedIn. If you would like to publish it or need articles of this sort, please get in touch with me.

Prologue

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

“All of you have vomited whatever you pushed down your throat the night before exams on these papers and forced me to run my hand all over it. That’s how I felt when I was correcting your papers!”

I was angry. I was angry at them. I was angry at the system. Marks are everything. Somehow we missed the point in this whole chaos –  why do they study? Why do I teach them? Why is there such an over-emphasis on memorization in teaching and exams?

One lazy day, I asked them, “Why do you think the exams test our memory rather than our understanding?” I must confess that I listened to none of their thoughts, though they were bringing out some valid arguments.

I had a moment of epiphany and I asked them “If I asked you about something you don’t know, what will you do?”

Someone lifted their mobile and waved at me. Everyone laughed, leaving a few in the front row wonder what just happened. Once the hustle settled down, I asked them again, “Imagine 1984. Suppose I asked you for something you don’t know. What would you have done?”

Books were a rarity, often a luxury found mostly in libraries. Or ask someone who knows the answer, they would explain it to you. And nearly a century before that, it was much harder as there were very few libraries and experts, sometimes just one in a city.

They had to depend on their memory. And the education system had to train them to develop their skills to memorize new information, as it was a vital skill.

It is not so now.

Information about nearly everything is easily accessible to everyone now. The dependence on memory in the world out there has come down.

The hour went by quickly. I left with my new understanding, yet puzzled. I ruminated on it for a few weeks.

Then what should I focus on training them in the classrooms? Until now, I focussed on explaining the content of the textbook with them.

If information is available at their fingertips, teaching them the content is pointless. I had already noticed that just presenting some new information to them is not exciting them either.

While many students restricted themselves to one textbook in past, now they are exposed to various websites. For someone without practice, it’s hard to distinguish which fact in the website is right or wrong, which is useful and which is not, how to interpret and draw conclusions from multiple sources.

Instead of being the centre of attention, I started using the content as a tool to teach them how to learn. I tried to teach them how to make the best of books, computers and the internet to find the required information themselves. I tried to teach them to draw conclusions from the knowledge they gain from multiple sources. I tried to bring in more examples that they can connect to. I tried to encourage them to think a step ahead in classrooms, try to come up with their own thoughts, theorems, concepts and frame definitions.

Learning became fun. Teaching and preparing for it became an exciting puzzle I solve every day. Stories, paper rockets, drawings, colours filled the classrooms. I left the classes satisfied, with a smile on their faces matching up to the curiosity to learn with which they welcome me the next day. How that thought changed my view towards teaching and learning process is a whole article in itself and I will reserve that for later. Let me bring your attention back to internal tests.

Tests continued in the usual pattern, though I tried to include more so-called “application” level questions in my question papers. I felt incomplete after setting each question paper, not in line with my newfound teaching philosophy.

Two semesters passed. One day, PG first years who walked in for 2nd Internal test of Java were welcomed with a two-page question paper, contrary to the usual one-page.

The test was out of 50 marks as usual. They spotted the usual Part A and Part B in its places, where Part A has compulsory 5 two mark questions adding up to 10 marks, and Part B had 6 ten mark questions, from which they have to score 40 marks.

What changed is a big bold OR below Part B.

There was a Part C.


I knew a sudden change may upset students and fail me in my general aim to convince them to rethink their learning pattern. Breaking the pattern out of the blue might invite the attention of my colleagues as well, most of them were conformists – adherent believers of established system perfected by time and that meant trouble.

Also, I have to prepare them for the end semester, which is never in my control. That convinced me to retain Part A and B as it is. Part A was still compulsory – I cannot ignore the memorization component entirely. They had an option between Part B and Part C.

Part C demanded them to write one of the 3 questions presented to them, where each question carried 40 marks. Along with it, I added, “Please feel free to attempt as many questions as you wish”.

Setting the questions required intense thinking for nearly a week and a deeper understanding of the subject. Through a sequence of 4-5 questions, which were more like a guided discussion with all prerequisites needed to be presented on the question paper itself. They had to derive conclusions and present it in a line or two on the paper.

The first question focussed on the first of my newly found teaching philosophy: learning something new they haven’t learned before. The second one was about the second philosophy: how to apply something they learned, in a real-world problem. Instead of repeating a question in the textbook as we usually do for “application” level questions, I framed new ones, with loopholes to let them use their imagination and take it to any length that they want. The third question focussed on deriving a new concept they hadn’t learned before, formalising their thoughts and presenting it on the paper.

Image result for Exam calvin and hobbes
Talking about loopholes (Calvin and Hobbes)

I knew that this meant danger. Their imagination can stretch as far as that of an exceptional thinker, to as low as presenting a weaker proposition on the paper, yet excited of having developed it themselves. I have to be careful in correcting them. I cannot call any idea dumb either, as they have bent their brain in a way they are not usually demanded to, in no time’s notice.

Imagination is more important than knowledge

Albert Einstein

I had designed Part B in such a way that they could finish it fast and give a thought to Part C in spare time. That encouraged some to finish Part B and try Part C. In short, my colleagues were surprised when some students returned the answer booklet with just a side of a paper written. When enquired, they simply said, “It’s Jesse sir’s paper – some 40 marks questions were 3-4 lines” and some added, “it was fun”.

They surprised me with their original thoughts on the paper. Some of the so-called “weak” students scored much higher in Part C and chose to attempt more than one Part C question. The “bright” ones, on the other hand, hesitated to break the pattern. Many struggled to express their thoughts well, mostly due to lack of language proficiency or lack of practice presenting their ideas.

Learning from this experience, I tried to train them to develop and present their ideas better in the classroom next semester. Questions were also framed with extreme care to reduce their dependence on language skills. Students knew what kind of questions are waiting for them on the paper when they walked in for CAs and most of them were confident to give it a shot in the semester that followed.

The new learnings already had an impact on the way I treat the subject in UG courses. But I did not meddle with their question papers as it was still experimental, despite the positive results in PG for nearly a year. I believe the increased number in my electives speaks for itself in UG and PG – a course which had 7 students on average for many years until I took over had 22 this semester, a course which had 12 students on an average had 28 this semester.

By the even semester of the academic year 2019-20, I was ready to extend it to UG. But the doors to teaching closed in MCC, leading me to write this article – hoping that someone will pick it up from where I stopped and help make teaching and exams more relevant and fun to the students.

Epilogue

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”

Albert Einstein had it right

Footnotes

Please note that I am not undermining the value of memorization. I am personally very slow in memorizing information and in recollecting it. That lead to the development of above said skills on a personal level. Also note that Part A was still compulsory, which has components of memorization involved.

Ironically, I was travelling as I typed that article and in a no-internet zone when I couldn’t recollect a particular word (the word, I later recollected myself as “ruminate”) and did not have the technology to my rescue. My argument is not that we must take away the memorization component entirely, but questioning whether it deserves the emphasis given to it in our classrooms and examinations these days.

Please feel free to get in touch with me for more details and some sample question papers. Or get in touch with me if you want me to continue my research in your college/school! 😉

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