,EXAMS

I taught music in colleges for many years. I enjoy teaching. In a dream world, all my students would have thirsted for knowledge, and been happy to learn. But alas, in the real world some were uncouth -- not all, but too many. There were enough of them to subvert the joys of teaching and learning.

To learn something new is hard work. Students who are unwilling or incapable might simply watch the classroom sessions the way they watch TV, were it not for the impending threat of the exam. From the point of view of the teacher, exams are a necessary evil. From the point of view of the unwilling and the incapable students, exams are an imposition. They will do anything to survive the exam, with one exception: they will not learn the subject matter of the course.
          You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
          You can put a brain through college, but you cannot make it think.

The legitimate means employed to circumvent exams are many and varied.
     CRAMMING: a desperate attempt to load the information into the short-term memory. The assumption is that the subject matter is arbitrary and useless. It can be forgotten afterwards, if only it can be remembered long enough to parrot it to the satisfaction of the examiner.
     TRAINING: a desperate attempt to have the information loaded into the short-term memory. The students ask the teacher to tutor them for the exam in class time. If that fails, they seek out private tutors, or a cram school that supposedly teaches the technique of exam-taking. One such school advertises: "Through a combination of highly experienced tutors, quality training material, and unique services on line, we offer the best study experience available, achieving pass results that significantly surpass the national average." If that were so, why bother to attend classes?
     LOBBYING: Student organizations apply pressure to modify the rules, supposedly to protect the "rights" of the students, but actually to water down the rigorous administration of the exams. They have been quite successful. Exams from previous years are made available. A syllabus includes a description of the exam. A teacher provides a list of possible questions, from which the exam questions will be chosen. Exceptions allow extra time, or a makeup exam at a later date. The exams are marked on a curve.

The illegitimate means employed to circumvent exams are more many and varied.
     SIGNALING: tapping with a pencil, foot tapping, finger waving, coughing, etc. Only a limited amount of information can be transmitted, and within a short time it arouses suspicion.
     CRIB SHEET: These have been written on skin under clothing, inside the pockets of garments, inside water bottles, on a tiny roll of paper secreted inside the cap of a pen or in the mouth, etc.
     TOILET TRYST: A crib sheet is hidden beforehand in a convenient toilet, or a confederate waits there. Thus a visit to the toilet during the exam is enlightening in more ways than one.
     DEVICES: Electronic technology provides almost unlimited possibilities. It is only a matter of time before a proctor without some kind of scanner will be helpless against digital cheaters.
     FAKE EXCUSE: The fake excuse must be authenticated with forged documents. The makeup exam will be at a later date, and meanwhile it is possible to glean useful information from those who have already taken it. As an exam date approaches, the mortality rate of grandmothers rises alarmingly.
     IMPERSONATION: Someone else takes the exam in place of the real student. In a large institution with a large student body, there is little danger of discovery.
     BUYING TERM PAPERS: The commerce in counterfeit term papers is a huge, efficient industry. Again, unless there is a personal relationship between teacher and students, there is little danger of discovery.
     CRIME: A complex administration deals with exams: writing, editing, printing, guarding, scheduling, proctoring, grading, At every stage, there are ample opportunities for bribery and robbery. The academic world is not populated by angels.

Of course, teachers are also not saints. The worst are those who purposely hoodwink the students with trick questions. They can only expect a similar hostility in return. Yet even among benign teachers, there is a woeful inability to compose unambiguous intelligent exams.

In the best of all possible worlds, the ideal would be a take-home exam consisting of a list of essay questions, from which the student would choose which to answer. There is no race against the clock, no memorization of masses of data, no focus on arbitrarily chosen details. The student clearly demonstrates understanding, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, in the real world this provides so many opportunities for cheating that it is quite impracticable, except in tutorials like those at Oxford and Cambridge.

The second best ideal would be a well-administered oral exam. There can be no cheating. The student can display expertise freely. Unfortunately, oral exams are haphazard, and even with the best intentions they are often unfair.

The worst kind of exam is the most common: multiple choice. This has one admirable quality: it relieves teachers of the drudgery of reading exam papers. The exams can be marked by an ignorant assistant, or by a computer. It allows for an additional indignity. There can be more questions than anyone could answer in the time allotted. Thus the students are also graded on the speed with which they answer, or guess the answers, even though that has nothing to do with their understanding of the subject matter. Unfortunately. not everyone knows how to write unambiguous multiple-choice questions. The whole thing is criminally unfair, but it is deeply entrenched in the academic world.

In Israel, the relentless pressure of the students has resulted in a veritable nightmare for the teachers.
     TWO VENUES: Every exam is given twice. A student may take it either time or both times. The second venue must occur after the grades from the first have been published, so that students may try to improve their grades by taking the exam a second time. The second grade invalidates the first Thus the teacher must compose two different question papers.
     EXTRA VENUES: No student may be required to take more than one exam a day. A student may demand a third venue if he/she cannot attend the standard venues due to another exam on the same day, or.personal reasons, or sickness, or army reserve duty, or a court appearance, etc This applies even if the student cannot attend only one of the two standard venues, if it prevents him/her from exercising the inalienable right to take an exam twice. A student who cannot attend the third venue for similar reasons may demand a fourth. Thus the teacher must actually compose three, or even four, different question papers.
     INDULGENCES: There are many excuses that permit extension of the time allowed to complete the exam, and the list grows continually. The teacher must be present for the first half hour, to answer questions (usually an appeal for encouragement, or an attempt to elicit hints). The students are allowed drinks, snacks, colored markers, rulers. etc -- all possible hiding places for crib sheets. They are allowed unsupervised visits to the toilet.
     PROTEST: The teacher must spend hours receiving students to hear their complaints about their grades. Voices are raised, and tears are shed, and egos are bruised.
     APPEAL: A student who still feels aggrieved may appeal in writing to a committee of faculty members. In most cases, the committee finds in favor of the student.

In my attempts to provide decent exams, I fought a rear guard action.
     I began with essay questions. Too many students were incapable of organizing their thoughts, or of writing coherent prose. Even when I included lists of points to be covered in the essays, it was no use.
     I retreated to basing each essay question on a single item from the aforesaid lists of points to be covered. In each case I asked for a definition, and examples from the music studied. Again, it was no use. Too many students could not distinguish relevant information from irrelevant. They apparently quoted from the notes they (or someone else) had scribbled in the classroom, and hoped for the best.
     I retreated to asking for comparisons between specified pairs of pieces of music. I warned them that I would not accept two unrelated descriptions, the second of which began with "On the other hand..." Again, it was no use. Too many students gave me precisely that. When I refused to accept it, they were astonished that I had actually meant what I said. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
     I retreated to an entirely different format, evading the exam regulations by calling it a term paper. I created a CD with 16 tracks, each a one-minute excerpt from the music studied. Each student received a copy of my CD as a take-home exam. The task was, to choose 10 tracks, and not merely to identify the piece,.but to describe the music in the specific excerpt. Yet again, it was no use. Too many students quoted from their scribbled notes, apparently not even bothering to listen to the track. It was obvious that groups of students had pooled their ignorance, and copied each other's errors. Too many did not submit their exam papers at the required time and place, and raised hell when I penalized them. The bureaucrats sided with the protesting students, and I had had enough.

Here are my opinions. I have known two things since childhood: that to learn something new is its own reward, and that knowledge is power. School should teach, not only specific things, but more importantly the habit of learning. Life itself should teach the same thing.

The alibi that bad teachers prevent learning is invalid. It is possible to learn from bad teachers, even in spite of them. What is needed is self-respect and self-confidence. For example: Beethoven's father was a vicious alcoholic, who taught his son music with curses and beatings. This surely injured Beethoven's psyche, but not his desire or his ability to learn music.

The alibi that peer pressure prevents learning is invalid. Since the stupid usually outnumber the intelligent, the majority opinion is that whatever is imposed by authority must be arbitrary and useless. What is needed is self-respect and self-confidence. For example: A salesman in a tobacco shop showed me a detailed book about pipes and pipe smoking. The proprietor had given him the book, and told him to learn its contents so that he could serve customers who came to buy pipes. He added: "Only then, for the first time, I understood what they wanted from me in school."

To have learned something is not to have memorized it, but to have acquired the ability to use it. A good exam creates an artificial situation in which the student shows mastery of what has been learned by using it. All other types of exam are of limited value, and vulnerable to cheating.

Professionals and performing artists are examined in this way. For example: Medical students are confronted with actors pretending to exhibit symptoms, and the students must diagnose them and prescribe treatment. For example: When I was a student pianist, my entrance and graduation exams were exactly the same. I sat at the piano on the stage of the empty concert hall. The only illumination was a blinding spotlight focused on me. The disembodied voices of a jury of teachers ordered me, out of the darkness, what to play and when to stop. Such exams are a meeting between teachers who want to teach and students who want to learn, neither taking shortcuts.

There have been students who told me that my exams pleased them, that they were a stimulating challenge. Unfortunately, there were too many of the other kind. The other kind do indeed learn, not from the classroom but from the exams themselves. They learn how to cheat. If their cheating is accepted by their peers, and if they get away with it, they do indeed use what they have learned. They apply it in their work places, and in their business affairs, and in their marriages.