In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?
On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.
I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety.
I agree, having to memorize a lot of stuff is difficult, and getting tested on straight-up memorization, even when perfunctory, takes away joy. In high school English, I’d get vocab tests every Wednesday. I’d have to spell and define 20 words, the majority of which were new to me. It was a stressful, even if I did my job well and studied them before the very last possible moment.
Does having to memorize stuff enhance (useful) learning? Maybe, in some cases, it might, but how true is this? Having to memorize some things might have mattered more when we didn’t have fonts of global knowledge in our pockets. Nowadays, why would we be asking students to memorize things that we don’t know ourselves when we can easily look it up? I wouldn’t ask my students to memorize anything that I don’t already know off the top of my head. And I look stuff up all the time.
I’ve forgotten almost everything I memorized while I was in college. I thought it was super cool and useful to learn the citric acid cycle (=Krebs cycle) in my first year of college-level biology. This is the molecular pathway that plants, animals and some other creatures use to turn sugar into energy. Like a mechanic knows how valves work in an engine, biologists need to understand the fine details of cellular respiration. It is, truly, foundational. It was so important, I had to memorize it. I knew that when I went into an exam, I would have to draw from scratch (or least fill in the blanks) of everything in this:I spent a lot of trouble and effort making sure that I memorized the name of every chemical, every enzyme, the products of every reaction, and all of the structures involved. Because I knew it’d be on the exam. And I thought, boy, after all this effort, I’ll never forget this! That was really naïve. Now, I barely know any of the steps in the Krebs cycle. I understand some of the basics, but for someone reason I just remember alpha-ketoglutarate.
Even though I have forgotten the details, I’ve been telling myself that I’ve benefitted from having memorized it. That having learned the details, I’ve absorbed the important concepts that are useful to me as a working biologist. I have felt the same way about calculus, nowadays, I can’t differentiate or integrate my way out of a bag, even if the bag has very simple lines. But having been able to integrate stuff is supposed to help me conceptualize stuff. Or so the reasoning goes.
I’m not so sure this is true. I spent a lot of time cramming just to memorize that Krebs cycle. Just imagine if I was required to spend an equivalent amount of time applying information about the Krebs cycle to problems in biology? What if I was asked to analyze results of experiments that required an understanding of the Krebs cycle? No, I pretty much just had to memorize it. And then, I forgot it.
I think my professors were taking a shortcut. It was easy for them to ask me to memorize it, and easy for them to test me on it. Or maybe they never got the memo that having us memorize a bunch of stuff isn’t what they should be expecting of college students.
If there’s one thing that science professors get exposed to in educational theory, it’s Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is at the moment pretty much dogma about levels of cognition. At the lower end is being able to Remember and Understand things. Beyond that, students can Apply and Analyze, and at the higher end they can Evaluate and Create (Synthesize).
Being able to memorize stuff, and also understand it, is educational small potatoes*.
When we offer closed book exams, we can test throughout Bloom’s Taxonomy, including the “Remembering” bit. When we offer open book exams, it’d be silly to test for the ability to regurgitate facts, of course. How much of that ability-to-memorize should be part of what we’re testing? Maybe in some introductory courses for majors, memorizing might be foundational. But for non-majors classes, and advanced courses in the majors, shouldn’t we be aspiring to teach beyond that level?
When is it worthwhile to test for the mere ability to remember facts? Whenever it’s not worthwhile, then shouldn’t exams be open note and open book?
So, let students have a chart of the Krebs cycle. And then test them to see if they understand it. If you’re testing for ability to identify plants and animals, let them have the guide book! If you’re testing for ability to perform and interpret (say) dihybrid crosses, let them have their textbook!
If the idea of letting students have their textbooks would destroy your ability to write challenging exams, then does this say more about the exams, or the activities that happen in class prior to the exam?
If we are teaching a bunch of facts and procedures, then that’s what we have to test students on. But if we are teaching how to solve problems and apply information and think synthetically, then that’s what the test needs to look like.
If we want to teach higher level thinking, then that should require higher level learning. Perhaps by testing with open book exams, we can keep ourselves honest as professors by making sure that we are teaching competencies and skills that can’t be looked up easily in a book.
*No offense intended to those who enjoy small potatoes; I’m supposed to be able to get away with saying it because I’m half-Irish, they say.