Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How Studying Hard For University Exams Does More Harm Than Good

Sick of studying for exams? Well, you should be.

All semester long, you study hard. And at the end, it comes down to one final exam, where the bulk of your marks rest on that single answer sheet. How scary. And how silly.

Truth is, most universities are out of touch with reality. Grading students based on final exams is a terrible way of assessing how good they really are.

1. Good for gathering knowledge, but bad for building intelligence

Exam questions are typically designed to test the breadth of a student's knowledge on a particular subject. Identifying all the bullet points is far more important than exploring the important ones in depth. Every question is confined to a specific chapter or two of a subject in isolation, disconnected from topics found in other related subjects (which are examinable separately).

Students who score well in exams do so because of their impeccable knowledge. But being knowledgeable is not the same thing as being intelligent. You may know the names of all the cities in the world, but understand nothing about the cultures behind them. You may know all the principles of marketing and management, yet understand nothing about running a business.

Intelligent students can easily ace exams if they really try to. But many choose not to do so, because they figure it's not worth the effort. They don't need good grades to prove their intelligence to themselves or others. So they focus instead on more meaningful and practical challenges, like projects, competitions and internships - for that's where the true test of intelligence lies.

Meanwhile, outside the exam hall...

2. Good for short-term memory retention, but bad for long-term learning

Back in university, I used to score high marks for subjects I absolutely hated, spent the least time revising, and resorted to spotting questions. Ironically, for subjects which I enjoyed, read beyond the syllabus, and had an in-depth understanding lasting till today, I fared poorly.

Over the years, I've also observed the study habits of others. There were those who could cramp everything last-minutely, yet struggle to recall what they studied after the exams are over. These are often the same folks who scored higher than me for subjects which they later turn to me for advice.

Preparing for exams typically forces you to study in a short-sighted manner. In order to cover as much ground as possible, you sacrifice depth for superficiality. In order to maximise your limited memory space, you resort to shortcut formulas rather than mastering concepts. Exams only check on how many fishes you have in your pail, not how you caught them - and that's hardly a good way to make sure you don't go hungry for the rest of your life.

3. Good for theory, but bad for practice

Sure, some exam questions are modelled after almost-real-life scenarios, to test one's critical thinking. But creative as they are, these questions rarely challenge students to 'think outside out of the box'. How can they? The whole syllabus is a box, and it takes a pretty mean lecturer to set an exam question with the answers lying outside the syllabus.

Shouldn't we blame the syllabus then, and not exams? Ah, but here's the kicker: having a common final exam is the very reason why a strict syllabus exist in the first place! An 'exam' is meant to pose the same set of questions to a class of students who are given the same set of materials within the same set of time frame. But how is that even reflective of real-life challenges?

A two-hour exam is a scenario that almost never happens at work. Not even the brightest expert is expected to come up with a full-proof solution to a problem of a client he's meeting for the very first time on the spot. Instead, real work is more akin to projects and assignments - professionals are given weeks to research and devise a comprehensive solution. And this is where students should be tested more heavily on, as early as university.

Don't try this in university, kids!

Less Exams, More Results

That's not to say that exams are bad and should be abolished. Exams do serve a good purpose, and still have a place in universities.

What's being advocated here is simply to diminish the role of exams in student evaluation. Other methods which train practical skills - like assignments, projects and viva (oral exams) - should be given more weightage.

But regardless of that, students should keep calm in the face of exams. Employers no longer equate academic excellence to working competence so rigidly. They, too, have come to realise that good grades don't mean everything, and may in some instances mean nothing at all.

So don't worry, kids! It's not the end of the world if you fare badly in exams, alright? The less you focus on exams, the more time and energy you have to focus on more important goals in life. Stop obsessing over exams, alright? You're better off unloading them off your back.

Mark Twain once said: "I have never let schooling interfere with my education".

Likewise, you shouldn't.

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