29 September 2012

Exams: the fake certificate of knowledge

University courses are typically accompanied by exams. Exams are supposed to test the students' knowledge and are accompanied by a grade given to the student. When a student gets a good grade, they are happy they have learnt the subject. The university is also happy that it has managed to provide the knowledge to the student. The funding body of the university (e.g., the government) is also happy. Everybody is happy.

My experience, however, in several countries shows that exams are not doing what they are supposed to do. (With rare exceptions, of course). The funding bodies of universities put pressure to the universities to maximize the number of students graduating per year. Therefore, it is to the interest of the university not to have failures. Exams are designed in such a way that the students pass. In fact, they do not even test the students' knowledge. Instead, whole courses are being taught in a way that the students pass the exam.

What is absolutely incredible is that, in several countries, like Greece for instance, the student can take a resit exam as many times as they desire, until they pass! This creates an enormous pressure to the teachers to pass the students because they cannot have a growing number of students taking the same exam again and again. In many universities in the UK, students are allowed to take the exam twice per year. In Sweden, they are given three chances per year, and each exam is 5 hours long. Students realize that universities are under a lot of pressure to pass them in the exam and to give them good grades, that they now do not even care about learning the subject properly. Rather, they demand that they be taught material that is examinable. In the US, the problem is solved by grading on a curve. That is, it is predetermined that, say 20% of the students must get an A, 30% a B, and so on, and, regardless of the absolute marks, the scale is adjusted accordingly. A practical solution, actually. Many European countries do even worse things (like multiple resit exams), and often they pretend that exams are flawless testing of students' abilities. Whereas, in reality, it is often a fraud.

Students who want to learn should be aware that exams are designed so that the average student passes immediately. Therefore, those students who feel the need to learn should be aware that exams are not designed for them and should seek alternative routes. Very hard, indeed, but it's much better to tell good students the truth, rather than fictitiously boost their egos by giving them good grades, when the grade inflation is so high, that only an idiot can fail to realize what is going on.

In Scotland, grade inflation starts early on. At early elementary school. Here is a first-hand incident, happened to the son of a friend of mine in a good public school. The kids are given a multiple choice test. After taking the test, the teacher provides the students the answers and asks them to have a second go, without taking the original papers back. In other words, the teacher hints to the students that they can correct their mistakes, based on the answer sheets he gives them. My friend's son found this so hilarious, and, despite his age, he understood the fraud. In this way, the teacher makes sure that the kids in the class (well, those who get the hint that they can cheat) get very good grades. He then goes to the principal and boasts about his class's performance. The principal presents the results to the board of education. The board of education concludes that everything is very good and keeps funding the school. The students' parents are proud of their offspring's performance. Everybody is happy. And the fraud goes on.

This is how ridiculous the whole exam system has become. It is a failed currency, something which does not represent anything real. In fact, I maintain that there is often little correlation between one's grades in exams and one's abilities. Even if things were better (without several resit exams, ad infinitum, without exams that last as long as students like), writing an exam which actually tests what is supposed to test is difficult. And who has the time, or cares, to do so? And why should the teacher care? After all, no university will give such a diligent teacher an award. Awards are only given based on students' impression. If a teacher actually tries to design an exam which will test students' knowledge, then the students will be unhappy, the university will be unhappy with the teacher (who may punish him or her--real cases of this nature do exist), the government will be unhappy, and so on. The teacher who wants an easy way out, will teach the students how to pass the exam, will write exams so that students pass at the first attempt with good grades, will, as a result of this, get a teaching award, and, probably, his salary may even go up.

The story, as I have described it, is quite generic. One may ask if it applies to this or that place. My answer is that it applies much more frequently than not. So frequent and widespread is the fraud, that if one picks a country at random and a university in this country at random, one has a high chance of seeing the phenomena I described above. Notable exceptions do exist, fortunately, but they are becoming rarer and rarer.

The more widespread the fraud is, the more likely it is for a university to have thought through cover-ups, ways of  "proving" that everything works perfectly. For this reason, pedagogical bodies have been formed, which are supposed to test the quality of teaching and education. Endless bureaucrats have designed pedagogical rules which, if followed--they claim--then, undoubtedly--they claim--the education provided will be of first rate.

But the problem remains the same: no matter how many awards are given, no matter how many pedagogical controls are applied, making the exams disjoint from learning is a disgusting practice which is only paralleled by the Catholic Church's cover-up of its pedophile priests.


  1. Someone said to me a long time ago in regard to a corporation where he worked: systems drive behaviour. If you want to understand how your system is working just look at the behaviour. If you want to change the behaviour then you have to change the system.

  2. In the case at hand, the system is the university or the government. It is futile to try to change this system, albeit desirable. It is impossible. What is possible, however, is to call things by their names (exams are a fake certificate) in the hope that some people will realize the truth.



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant