Last fall, my test scores were nothing short of abysmal. These low scores have forced me to reconsider what benefit, if any, one gains from the test-taking culture’s prevalence in academia. Too often, I find myself cramming for tests and memorizing information only to find that after the exam has passed, most of that knowledge is gone from my memory. I’m sure other students can relate.

While this rote style of learning is conducive to test taking, it’s largely detrimental to substantive learning. Most unfortunately, rote exams tend to assess minor details rather than a broader understanding of philosophical concepts or ideas that lie at the crux of all disciplines.

Typically, testing and grades are primarily used for assessment. But they are also used as a means of motivation. Learning motivated by grades often results in a superficial approach to studying that offers little benefit to the student.

Instead, substantive learning should be motivated by genuine interest from both the student and instructor. It is essential that professors demonstrate passion for the subject. After all, professors are in a unique position to inspire passion in students that won’t come from test preparation. Passion, in turn, breeds quality as well as a genuine thirst for new knowledge. These are essential tools to facilitate the sustained and substantive learning process that leads students to one of the ultimate goals of higher education — a commitment to lifelong learning.

Exams are an academic convention, and our culture rewards individuals that excel at taking tests. But this is a skill that is only useful within the academic context. Imagine a boss that evaluated employees’ performance with an exam and a letter grade. This would provide little substantive feedback and offer no tangible guidance for improvement.

This raises another question — shouldn’t academia assess and reward students using real-world methods? Wouldn’t this better prepare students for their professional careers? To answer this we must consider the skills that are most valuable in a professional setting.

In my experience, persuasive writing is an indispensible skill in the workplace, which is why many organizations evaluate applicants using writing samples. In addition, the ability to collaborate in a productive manner is essential because the most pressing challenges in science or the humanities are often complex — solving them requires the integration of multiple perspectives. Effective problem solving also requires that individuals be able to think creatively and offer innovative insight.

The test-taking culture doesn’t contribute to these ends. In fact, test taking, which is almost always a solitary endeavor, is antithetical to the collaborative culture that is at the core of real-world problem solving.

Alternatively, academia could implement more realistic means of assessment by encouraging creative thinking and communication from students as well as group projects that emphasize collaboration. This approach would expose students to complex realities and foster critical thinking abilities that ultimately enable real learning. In turn, this will instill students with a lifelong love of learning and prepare for a knowledge-based economy, which will champion innovation above pure knowledge.

While academia is often considered to be rational and forward-thinking, it’s utterly conservative when it comes to modes of assessment. This conservatism places tradition and convenience for the assessors above the potential benefits of new ways of evaluation. It’s time to begin to seriously consider and experiment with novel methods to better prepare students for real-world challenges. In doing so, students and professors alike will undoubtedly discover real-world solutions and take an inspired approach to learning.

A new group for graduates and undergraduates called Students for Assessment Reform is starting. SAR’s mission is to promote a cross-campus dialogue on new methods of student assessment and provide recommendations to University leaders. If you’re interested in joining or learning more, please contact Max Bronstein at

Max Bronstein is a Public Policy graduate student.

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