The test questions were harder than the homework. Is this fair?

Dan Koshland, the Berkeley biochemistry professor whose work yielded major contributions to studies of enzyme structure and function, was fond of repeating a student review turned in at the conclusion of a yearlong biochemistry class. Such reviews, requested on the last day of most undergraduate courses, provided opportunities for faculty to glean useful feedback – although as one might imagine, there was always the potential for some colorful commentary. This particular review read, according to Professor Koshland, “The course was very thorough. Everything that was not covered in lectures or in the textbook was covered on the final exam”. It was a story he often repeated, though not out of any sense of satisfaction derived from the collective intimidation of a lecture hall full of pre-meds. He said it because he knew biological science courses were often thought of as rote memorization classes, and he wanted to steer you away from rote memorization. He wanted to prepare students to construct original thoughts, based on material learned during the course, when faced with a question that came out of left field. He said it because he wanted his students to think.

It is interesting how in recent years, introductory college courses seem to have migrated down to the last couple of years of high school, with calculus often taken as a standard junior year elective and multivariable calculus taken in the senior year. So too, concomitantly, has the level of rigor on quizzes and exams, even for very basic classes. A number of years ago (notwithstanding a few schools long known for exceptional rigor) if a student did all of the homework, and diligently learned and understood the lecture notes in detail, that student could reasonably expect quiz or exam questions to specifically reflect that material, even if it reflected the more challenging aspects of the content. These days this is less common. Exams at many high schools/secondary schools now regularly tend to challenge a student’s ability to formulate new ideas and to reason on the spot, under pressure, as opposed to an ability to repeat memorized class notes and homework. Questions that look entirely different from the problems discussed in lecture routinely appear. An awful lot of parents, never mind students, protest that this is not fair. Is it fair?

Let’s first consider the perspective of the teacher. Many teachers will argue that if they only test students on memorized material, they are not preparing their students to solve novel problems. Indeed, this seems a reasonable point. Exams and tests have, as their main goal, to assess how well students master/understand a (small portion of a) certain subject, and sometimes asking unusual questions can be an excellent way to judge how well students have indeed mastered the subject. As others have well explained, new questions or problems can give a hint on how deep the mastery is. In fact, one could argue that being able to pass general tests with questions that require uncovered to vaguely-touched-on material or methods that involve combining techniques in ways unseen in class is the culmination of education. Further, the thinking is that students learn best when they struggle a lot to solve difficult problems. Doing a problem on an exam that is exactly like, or very similar to, the assigned homework does not encourage someone to synthesize new ideas from their assumed understanding; it does not give them an opportunity to think on their feet. And students will have rather little choice but to think on their feet when faced with something different, something previously unseen, while under time pressure. In almost any career path, new and novel problems are going to appear, always. Basic education should include nurturing an ability to solve them.

Conversely, from the perspective of the student, consider how discouraging it is to study relentlessly for a test, sacrificing healthy chunks of time with friends, only to open the exam booklet and stare at questions that look nothing like the diligently reviewed homework and lecture notes. This can be pretty demoralizing (despite the teacher’s best intent). Not to mention that they leave the test feeling like an idiot. If this student attended every lecture and wrote down and studied all of the lecture material, and also did all of the assigned problem sets plus a healthy number of problems in addition, shouldn’t they have the expectation that all of their very attentive work prepared them adequately? And let’s not forget students strongly dislike getting test problems on topics they (believe) they have not been exposed to, especially if they were not expecting what they think of as surprise questions. So from their perspective it is wildly unfair. For an almost amusing (well maybe not quite) example of this at the extreme, have a look at the aptly titled “Student fury over ‘impossible’ economics exam”.

So, let’s return to our original question of fairness. Like with many issues where this comes up, the answer depends on which side you are on, in this case the test maker or the test taker. As such, the answer is there is no definitive answer, because fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Also, we must consider for whom the test is fair (or not), even if it is a country mile more rigorous than anticipated: because remember, there are a lot of students who do plan to major in a science, and those students will actually benefit greatly from the extra levels of rigor and resulting preparedness, even if they don’t necessarily feel that way at the time. Is it fair to them to offer a less rigorous exam? Because those kids will most certainly see exams with all kinds of surprise questions all through their college math and science classes, starting with their very first exam in freshman chemistry, twelve weeks after graduating high school.

Still, despite any level of perceived unfairness, let us emphasize for students and parents alike that schools are not likely to change their testing policies under fire, so raising Cain about your daughter’s physics test will not help her or your cause. In fact, complaining to the teacher that a test question was unfair or that they should raise a grade is a lot like the baseball manager charging out to home plate and yelling at the umpire that the runner was safe. How often do you see an umpire reverse the call? But as with baseball, where there are agreed upon rules, it helps if the students know what to expect on an exam, and it is perhaps best if teachers give them some advance warning that test questions might represent “a student’s best opportunity to display novel thought when faced with a problem not previously encountered”. And if the teacher does not specify this, or discuss the nature of the test beyond saying it is an hour long with 10 short answers and 2 essays, there is never any harm in asking! Assuming of course that a student is not intimidated by the teacher, which sometimes they are (and if so, the suggestion here is to approach the teacher with one or two friends, which is then much easier). Open communication and dialogue with teachers, and an understanding about the nature and expectations of the exam, will go a long way towards alleviating grievances and post-exam tears.

Of course, much of the real question comes down to grades, and given today’s cutthroat ultra competitive college application process this is not unreasonable. The fundamental problem, one might imagine, is the perception that grades will suffer, and so too will the college admissions prospects. And indeed grades are the single most important factor when applying to college; they receive more consideration than anything else. But absent the concern over grades, would not most parents agree that compelling a student to think under pressure is beneficial to that student? Given the hypothetical situation where a child is assured admission to a top Ivy, it is extremely likely that any uproar about test fairness or unfairness will disappear. Since that hypothetical does not exist, parents naturally express concern over a course that might hurt their child’s GPA. But remember, selective colleges know about the academically rigorous high schools; these schools, and the colleges, have been working with each other for a long time, and the colleges have a lot of data on them, and they know that at those schools even very strong students struggle in certain notorious classes. The admissions officer at the University of Mars knows that a B+ at your very rigorous school is an A at others, and they will most certainly have a long history of accepting those students and have lots of data on the success of those students they’ve previously admitted.

Lastly, it is important for all parents to consider if their child really should attend a “pressure cooker” school or not. This is in no way a reflection on the child, the level of parenting, or the eventual success that a child might enjoy later in life. Consider, for example, Richard Branson who dropped out of school when he was 15 and did OK. But we have worked with students who are truly miserable because of the stress they are under, and some of these stories have not ended well. Recent articles such as this excellent one by Jennifer Wallace in the Washington Post, “Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says” refer to some pretty eye opening studies, indicating challenges that even the most well balanced students might face when exposed to extreme pressure at such an early age. It is pretty informative and well written, and may well be worth your time to give it a look.


Till next time everyone!

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