I ran across a blog post this morning that makes some excellent points about timed exams. Here are three points from Jon Dron’s blog post What exams have taught me:
- that slow, steady, careful work is not worth the hassle — a bit of cramming (typically one-three days seemed to work for me) in a mad rush just before the event works much more effectively and saves a lot of time
- the corollary — adrenalin is necessary to achieve anything worth achieving
- that the most important things in life generally take around three hours to complete
As Marshal McLuhan said, the medium is the message. That is, the context of a message may speak louder than its content. Still, I’d like to defend timed exams in a limited context. You need to have quick recall of some facts. There are some skills you need to practice to the point that they are second nature. Not because these things are ultimately important but so you don’t have to think about them and can move on to other things.
Joel Spolsky gave an example along these lines in his recent podcast. He said that Serge Lang once began a calculus class with an algebra quiz, one expression to simplify. Thirty seconds into the quiz, it made everyone stop and turn in their work. At the end of the year, he compared the final grades to the grades on his algebra quiz. The students who got A’s in freshman calculus were almost exactly the same as those who were able to simply the algebra expression quickly. (The story begins around 8:12 in the audio file. It’s also on the transcript wiki.)
There are a couple ways to interpret this anecdote. One is that Lang’s exams measured quick reaction time and that students who were able to do algebra quickly were also able to do calculus quickly and thus succeed on Lang’s exams. There may be some truth to that. But I think more fundamentally, those who had mastered algebra were able to pay attention to the new material. Because algebra was second nature to these students, they could think about calculus.
I agree that typical hour-long exams are artificial and create some perverse incentives. I see a place for leisurely evaluation: take-home exams, projects, portfolios, etc. But I also see a place for timed evaluation, even quiz show-like rapid recall, though such evaluation need not factor into assigning grades. I think Jon Dron’s criticism is that timed exams are usually not created deliberately. I don’t think he would necessarily find fault with someone explicitly identifying a list of fundamental skills and explaining that these need to be performed quickly. I believe his criticism is that everything is evaluated in a rush by default.
Thanks to Daniel Lemire for pointing out Jon Dron’s post. Read Daniel’s commentary here.