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Killing curiosity: why exams harm scholarship and education

Tyll Zybura, 21. April 2020

Teaching is about establishing and sustaining connection between curious minds to create and to share ideas and knowledge. Exams are about generating distance and social barriers to safeguard privilege. They are harmful to students and harmful to scholarship.

What is an exam?

There is an inherent contradiction in the fact that graded exams are such a central part of higher education.

Most exams are supposed to test the extent to which an examinee has understood, reflected, and internalized a specific bit of knowledge from a larger body of knowledges that constitutes a scientific discipline (e.g. theories, methods, data, contexts, problems, histories, positions, but also practices of writing and speaking, conventions of discourse and argumentation). The knowledge that is tested is, by its elevation to testing material, understood as important to the discipline, and its retention and the ability to work with it is understood to be part of mastering the discipline. Mastery of the discipline is the grounds on which degrees are granted.

The exam is a mechanism to keep students at a distance from the outward signs of mastery, the degree

Thus, the exam becomes a gate-keeping mechanism, a means not to advance students in their studies by imparting canonical knowledge onto them, but to keep them at a distance from the outward signs of mastery, the degree. The exam is what separates students from the privilege to claim mastery – which is entirely different from having achieved it. 1

Once we subjugate knowledge to the logic of the exam, it becomes entangled in a power play that hurts not only students, but also the scientific endeavour as such.

First, the fact that grades are detrimental to students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is well-researched, and that the extrinsic pressure to study for good grades makes students ill becomes more and more apparent with every new report about the rising numbers of students who suffer from depression and anxiety.

Second, once a specific piece of knowledge is being used as an examination tool, social stratification becomes its primary function, while its function as part of education, of mastery, and of the connection with the historically grown body of scholarship becomes secondary. Knowledge’s original purpose and relevance within the discipline is rendered meaningless in the utilitarian isolation that the exam submits it to, as its purpose becomes to sort human capital and keep privileges from those who don’t retain, regurgitate, and perform in ways that suit the form of the exam.

Exams alienate students from science and scholarship

Third, by making knowledge into a power play performance that is extrinsic and even contradictory to scientific values of inquiry, curiosity, and discourse, exams also alienate students from science and scholarship. This is maybe the most tragic way in which exams undermine education as such: They dull inquisitive human beings in their curiosity by prioritizing standard answers over the exploration of ideas and learning.

Scholarship and education are about connection

Scholarship is all about establishing and sustaining connection – as is education

Scholarship is all about establishing and sustaining connection both on the individual and the social level: On the individual level, it is about the structured connection of ideas, about the struggle with difficult questions and the freedom of mind to pursue answers. On the social level, it is about the connection between human beings in inspiration and argument, in agreement and conflict about ideas that matter.

Education – the relationship of learning and teaching – is about exactly the same forms of connection: understanding and exchange.

By uprooting knowledge from its context in scientific inquiry and by making it into a currency of market economies in the context of education, the process of examination eliminates both the individual and the social level of connection: It shuts off knowledge from meaning-making by transforming learning from an individual broadening of intellectual horizons into an exercise of narrow-mindedness; and it shuts off the interpersonal connection between investigative minds – experts and novices who are scholars and learners alike – by submitting it to a hierarchy of assessment and evaluation.

Changing practices?

In our educational institutions and our everyday teaching, examination and testing are such a fixture that it’s difficult to avoid them or think beyond them. But part of our Unconditional Teaching project is to do exactly that: find constructive alternative ways to deal with the – often harmful – constraints of the system we work in.

In the article Learning with the freedom to make mistakes, Katharina and I have begun to collect ideas – many from our own practice – on how to adopt teaching methods that emphasize developing knowledge freely through open-ended research processes over testing.

But what about you?

If you read this as a teacher, what are your strategies that allow you to get more teaching done and less examining?

If you read this as a student, what are your strategies that help you safeguard your curiosity and your intrinsic motivation for inquiry despite being tested?

  1. I don't even want to address the obvious issue here that ‘mastery’ can never be reduced to the content of a series of exams, nor to a certificate. The degree itself is extrinsic to education itself; it is instead a shorthand currency used in the market economy of educational institutions and outside of them. ↩︎


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