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Opinion: Ditch the scantrons

Exams have more limitations for students than other forms of summative assessments.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
Exam culture isn’t for everyone.

For as long as I have been a student, tests have always been my adversary. 

Whether it was unproductively spending my time fixating on how well other students in the room were performing, the time I had left, or the anxiety and frustration that filled my mind when I could not answer the first few questions, exams were always an obstacle for me. 

It only went downhill once I began college. 

Sitting in a giant lecture room filled with almost 100 students at 8 a.m. on a Saturday as you make your way through a 45-question exam in two hours is the most daunting way to demonstrate your knowledge of a subject. 

I have never been able to thrive in such an environment, and many other students can relate. Significant aspects of exam culture tend to hold students back from presenting their full understanding of a subject.

A near-universal experience for all types of students is test anxiety

Luke Aliga, a third-year technical writing major at the University of Minnesota, said test anxiety causes feelings of doubt. 

“I definitely do get nervous during an exam, especially if there’s a time limit. There’s not much room to really ponder over things and you just have to put it out onto the page,” Aliga said. “Just that feeling of being rushed is a restraint in itself.” 

Hannah Ahimou, a first-year student, said the results of an exam are what causes the most anxiety.

“Usually it’s four choices, so it’s like, ‘Okay I have a one out of four chance to get this right,’” Ahimou said. “It’s frustrating when you get your exams back and being so close to the answer.” 

In-class exams do not empathize with the personal or academic challenges students face to equitably demonstrate their knowledge. 

On top of that, there is a lack of opportunity for students to creatively apply their knowledge, which is an element that drives many students to succeed. 

Miles Kao, a first-year kinesiology student, prefers writing papers to exams. 

“I think that exams do have their place when it comes to showing retention of information, but I feel like papers give students actual time to show that real-world application,” Kao said. 

Writing papers allows students to dive deeper into the material and uncover ideas that were not initially at the forefront of their minds. Papers also give students the ability to share the ways they individually interpret the information. 

“You can express your creativity and add a little bit more of your own personal character to it,” Aliga said. “Whereas an exam is like rote memorization. You don’t really have a lot of room to just be free with your learning and refer back to the information to remember, ‘Oh, what did I learn for this?’” 

Sylvia Berka, a third-year aerospace engineering student, said she prefers other forms of assessment such as take-home exams or projects. 

“We had a group project for the final, and I’m not gonna say it was easy, but it was just much less anxiety-ridden of a class,” Berka said. “It felt like an adequate amount of work to get the right grade, whereas in exam classes, I feel like it’s so much work to get a grade that you’re happy with.”

Another aspect of exam culture is how students study for exams. Most students tend to memorize a semester’s worth of knowledge as quickly as they can before the day of the exam. 

“It’s testing just your memory, ” Aliga said. “How is that really showing how much you’ve learned? Because after you’ve memorized it, then you have to go to the next exam and then memorize other information.”

Many students have more priorities than just one exam and will resort to cramming, ultimately not gaining a deeper and long-term understanding of the material. 

“When you use your resources to answer the question, I think that’s more applicable to real-world situations because most people are just gonna either look something up or ask someone for the answer rather than just trying to use recall,” Aliga said.

Exams usually also make up a big portion of a student’s grade in class, inducing pressure for students to pass.  

“They [professors] post the exam averages afterwards, and you have to place yourself in a ranking of where you placed in regards to your other classmates,” Berka said. “Am I above the mean? Or below it? You have to kind of find a balance of not having horrible mental self-talk after you do worse than the class on an exam.” 

When it comes to evaluating a student’s knowledge, exams and the culture around them do not do many students justice. 

Education is not one size fits all. It is in the best interest of educators to acknowledge the different ways students retain and apply information. If students can choose, there will be less pressure and anxiety around having one’s knowledge assessed.

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  • Yve
    May 6, 2024 at 7:58 pm

    As an aspiring teacher, I do think it is important to choose a diverse spread of assessments for students! It is true exams don’t work for many, and honestly, how can we expect exams to fairly assess students when they all come from differing backgrounds that can impact how they take tests or apply their knowledge? It isn’t fair, so I appreciate you shedding light on this topic with your unique and witty voice!