A Case Against Exams

Consider the following scenario:

It is a scorching mid-morning when you walk into your doctor’s office. You’ve been having some upper epigastric pain secondary to chronic gastritis.  The over-the-counter stuff does not work, and you haven’t been able to drink your morning coffee. You are a threat to society when you skip your morning coffee. After waiting an hour and a half to see the doctor, your doctor comes in. He tells you that you should have an upper endoscopy? (A what?) Perhaps some imaging on your upper GI tract.

Your doctor tells you what an upper endoscopy is. He tells you that a hose will be stuck down your throat, through your stomach and into your intestines. He says you will be given sedatives to relax and that you probably won’t remember the experience. And there are so few pain receptors on the small intestine that you won’t feel any pain the next day. Of course, your doctor has never had an endoscopy.

I was a pre-med student in a past life. And throughout those four harrowing years (yes, you can’t fault me for relentlessness for sure), I spent months chopping up dead bodies in anatomy, memorizing the physiology of the human body and identifying every convoluted area of the human brain and its functions even if it had already been minced and sliced into tiny bite-sized pieces.

Every other course required studying, memorization and listening to hours worth of lifeless, coma-inducing lectures by one boring doctor to the next. I am especially reminded of the fear-inducing laboratory exams commonly known as the “move system”, which by some unfortunate incident would comprise 70% of your final grade.

For those of you who are not familiar with the “move system”, it’s basically a type of assessment that’s designed to guarantee utter and dismal student failure. Let me illustrate that. The classroom is set up into several small variegated stations containing specimen with each station being the equivalent of one text question. Individually, the poor sacrificial cows aka students move from one station to the next in no more than 60 seconds with the instructor-warden shouting move  every minute. Scarcely have the students racked their short-term memory for that one piece of information when they hear the warden shout “MOVE!” To add to this palpable excitement, the sadistic instructors have conspiratorially decided that each specimen whether it be a muscle, a tendon or a lobe of the brain should be cut out of its origin and either cut up into pieces, charred, engorged into unrecognizable versions of itself. That was a delightful experience in itself. I am being facetious, obviously, but I still am convinced that every faculty was a Nazi commander in a past life.

Truthfully, back then I did not understand the aim of the game. Several years later, I still don’t. I understand that the point of exams is to monitor student progress, but I think that test had gone too far. It seemed like the purpose of the game was to memorize, retain and regurgitate information in the shortest possible time, so surely it was a test of short-term memory and spatial reasoning. Was that a skill that would help me in my intended field of work? I didn’t think so.

Going back to the scenario I presented earlier, would it really matter to the patient if I could recite facts and tell a section of the brain from the right side up? Let me propose a question? What if instead I was tested on how well I can identify each specimen and explain its functions in a way that patients can understand? Wouldn’t that be a better method of assessment?

After three years in pre-med, I remember developing a fear of assessments which I never had prior to that. The mere mention of the word “test” itself would strike a terror in my heart. And on the day of the exam itself, I would be paralyzed by fear. My stomach would tighten. My palms would get sweaty and my mind would go blank. The next thing I knew, I’d be unable to breathe and my fingers, arms and legs would be apposed at irregular angles. I became a regular at the PGH-ER not as a medical professional, but as a patient. And my world came crashing as I came to fear learning because I linked it with those terrifying exams.

Didn’t Albert Einstein once remark: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

What’s frustrating about exams is they have no real world application; they just fabricate situations. Case in point: the “move system”. You can spend hours and hours revising for exams and still come up with a blank space in a white background. Surely, education and learning is much more than what an assessment shows.



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