Are exams the best method to test student learning?

Laura Hubrich, Staff

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It’s the night before a big exam and it’s the first time you’ve reviewed your notes since you took them in class. All you can do now is drink coffee and stay up all night cramming in hopes of a good grade.

But how well do those exams reflect what students have retained throughout the semester?

Brad Caffee, adjunct history professor, said he doesn’t value tests highly because meaningful learning involves using long-term memory and he said he believes tests do not show that.

“Tests can only test short-term memory,” Caffee said. “You can cram for a test and then a month later, how much do you remember?”

Brandon Lyons, criminal justice senior, said he agreed that testing does not work for retaining information in the long term.

“Nobody actually sits there and studies the whole 12- to- 13 week semester. It’s all done 48 hours before the exam where they’re going through and refreshing and it’s all about what they remember then,” Lyons said.

Lyons said that if you ask a student if they remember what they were tested on a week after the exam, the student would say “no.”

Whitney Sacksteder, graphic design freshman from Purdue, said she doesn’t retain information after she takes the exam.

“I honestly don’t remember stuff that we did an exam over the next week, it will be gone and I won’t remember,” Sacksteder said.

Sacksteder said that students may retain information better and longer if professors had more hands-on learning, such as projects. She said she learns better when she does hands-on learning.

Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology, begged the question, is it the exam that is the problem or is it the study habits of the students?

“When people cram for exams, that information tends to be lost rather quickly,” Carducci said. “If you want information to be retained, what you have to do is repeat that information and make it meaningful.”

Carducci said he doesn’t believe the tests are the problem; it’s the study method that the student chooses to use.

Caffee said all that professors can really do is set up a system to help students retain information. He said the system depends on the individual professor, but he prefers to use repetition.

“The test can be a tool in that, but the test doesn’t really test that well. It’s a utility connected to the coursework,” Caffee said. “In my course, I like to set up a system of repetition over time and I make the test a part of that.”

Carducci added that professors use exams to gauge what students have learned based on what the professors believe is important.

By giving exams, Carducci said, it gives professors a true measure of what students know and what they have learned over the course of the semester.

“We have lots of different kinds of professors, sampling from lots of different classes, using lots of different types of tests,” Carducci said.