Friday, 20 March 2015

Do We Need Exams to Test Students?

“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave. This was a Catholic School in Munich. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system? From the age of twelve I began to suspect authority and distrust teachers.”
The above quote from Einstein (the greatest scientist of the twentieth century whom school system almost killed) reproduced here should be enough to alert those who seek to change educational policy, especially academic session for facilitating examination oriented academic policy. Examinations, as currently held, are not defensible; they are causing gangrene to the soul of education. Open book and grading, instead of marks policy, that has been successfully adopted by advanced societies and has replaced memory based and mindless competition based system needs to be given a try, at least in selected schools and I am sure many private schools at least would volunteer if the government cooperates.
Today there is a debate on changing academic session. I think the only thing that was not wrong with the educational system in our state was winter session that is now under scanner for reasons hardly many understand. While I wish to argue separately how changing the session could prove academic disaster (something like the recent floods proved for Kashmir economy) I today seek to question only one key premise of the whole debate that is being manufactured to benefit one can guess whom. That premise is smooth or efficient conducting of exams. Although one can refute the “arguments” for changing academic session to March by dozens of arguments (every student and teacher knows a few and one needs to be briefed for quite some time for considering the possibility of “advantages” in March session) I think why not deconstruct the very edifice of the system that is sought to be made more efficient. Do we need exams? Do we need to shift the session because exams will be facilitated in some sense?
If we want to paralyze a nation and a generation, force its best minds to attend classes, where notes are dictated and regurgitated in exams, and then much of what has been taught is of no relevance and is forgotten, and then force some of them to waste few more years in doctoral degrees as they can’t do anything new and then recruit some of them into ReTs or teaching jobs where they are overqualified. Most of the theses are not worth the space they occupy in library shelves. Most of them are guilty of plagiarism. Excellence is not achieved in a system where classrooms are overcrowded. One of the reputed educationists once told in a big gathering that he went to Europe for some special course on deputation for one year. And one fine day he was informed that he would be conferred the certificate. To his utter surprise he was never examined and when he asked authorities how come he is getting certificate without any examination he was answered that our daily interactions in class and the fact that as teachers they were successful in maintaining his interest in classes were enough for them to confer the certificate!!
A good teacher would not bother about exams and attendance; he will have enough charisma to attract students to learn. When Iqbal or Rajneesh used to lecture, students from other faculties would also join the classes. When teachers dictate notes, students would like to photocopy them and not waste one hour in the class because it is not a class where discussion happens, where new things are explored. There are teachers who have nothing to teach except dictating notes directly copied from a book or two thus committing a sort of plagiarism. A teacher must paraphrase book content or ask students to directly read the book. And students be given choice to discuss what they can’t themselves understand from the books. As most of the subjects are not rocket science or tensors or subtleties of quantum mechanics, there is no need for more than 90% teachers or classes as average intelligence is enough to grasp lessons. It is an insult to human dignity to require one to memorize what is simply learnt, used and transcended if not “forgotten.” I can only understand need for examination in some sense when skills are at stake. Remembering procedure could well be a hindrance. The best learning happens unconsciously–see the drivers and hundreds of operations we perform effortlessly, automatically once we have learnt or interiorized the craft. If we keep written examination for giving a license rather than actual driving session, how would it sound? More absurd is memory based written/oral examinations students are subject to. A teacher is one who stimulates to think rather than to memorize, who guides rather than dictates copy paste information, who motivates students to study rather than threatens to fail or asks questions that he himself has no time.
Likes of Tagore and Einstein couldn’t easily clear exams and that only shows worthlessness of a system that examined them. Wittgenstein could not stand for a PhD viva and was allowed to discuss a few passages from his own book to clear it.
We must debate need and form of exams rather than make exams a basis for changing the sessions. Any time spent in preparing for exams is wasted. Winters are best spent learning something rather than preparing for exams.

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