Recall over Understanding
I am in my third year of University now, and my aversion to exams is still apparent. I have always thought of exams as being biased towards those who can retain more information, the people who have better memories. It does not necessarily mean those people are more intelligent, simply that they can remember more.
A good example of this was during our spring semester exams this year. A student posted a video explaining a particular topic to the first year's Facebook wall. To be fair to that student, all he wanted to do was help his fellow course-mates, and the video was actually full of great information about the subject. After the exam, it emerged that the exact topic covered in that video had come up on the paper. People were rejoicing in the comments on the Facebook post that they had simply written out the entire script of the video after watching it on repeat the morning before the exam.
The ability to remember does not necessarily indicate how intelligent a person is.
Is that what we want to be encouraging in education, merely regurgitating terms and descriptions? It does not show understanding whatsoever, just that people can remember and retain information. The Oxford dictionary states that the definition of 'learning' is "the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught". I would argue that although students may acquire 'knowledge' through studying for exams, it's only a very superficial knowledge of the subject for the most part. Just enough to pass the exam in most cases. And that is the real problem here. As a society, we are too wrapped up in jumping through hoops rather than actually putting in the time for quality learning to understand the subject matter. That is not to say that all undergraduates are lazy. In fact, some are incredibly diligent and care a lot for their given area of study.
My Systems Design paper earlier this year had a twenty mark question (worth twenty per-cent of the entire exam) on Nielsen’s Heuristics. Very simply, I had to list all ten heuristics and briefly explain them. One might argue it’s a great question within an exam context. But I am still left with that nagging feeling that instead of spending ‘x’ hours remembering that list, I could have been doing something useful, perhaps building some software with those heuristics in mind. This is why coursework is so useful, and in my opinion, the best way of learning. It is quite similar to a fenced off play area for real-world work where people can experiment, make mistakes (a positive thing!) and most importantly, truly understand the work they are doing.
So, why am I reading for a degree in Software Engineering? I want to further my understanding and learn about the roots of my subject. In industry, it is unlikely that I am going to be asked to define the third Nielsen heuristic, but I may well be asked to design something keeping in mind user control and freedom. Having had the opportunity to build a system with that focus may well earn me my next career opportunity. I just don’t want to have to jump through hoops to show that I understand a particular topic. Don’t quiz me on what I remember and recall, let me apply the theory to a piece of work so I can show I have learnt something.