Getting By On Flash Cards, or Why I Stopped Giving Exams

I met with a student over the summer, as she was having trouble making the grade she needed on her Praxis exam.  She had taken it several times already and missed by just a few points each time.  When we were talking about the test, she started talking about all of the preparation she had been doing.  Another professor had loaned her an anthology for a class she didn’t take, and she had gone through the table of contents and biographical/background information and made flash cards.  She had looked at a sample test and made flash cards of any terms/ideas she wasn’t familiar with.  She had even ordered some pre-made flash cards from ETS to see if that would help.

She was clearly working hard, but there’s a trend running through her preparation.  After she laid out all of her preparation (which also included a very well-organized notebook that laid out the different sections of the test), she said, “I’ve always gotten through school with flash cards, and they’re not working now.”  I realized then that we had failed her.

When I saw we, let me be clear that I’m not using that term in some vague way to throw shade on other professors whom I’m trying–albeit in a passive-aggressive manner–to say aren’t as demanding as I am.  No, I taught this student, as well, so I’m just as responsible for her approach as anyone else at my university.  I realized, though, that we had taught her in such a way that flash cards had enabled her to succeed, even at the highest level classes.

I had already been leaning toward revamping my classes over the summer, and this event pushed me over the edge.  I looked back at the courses I would be teaching this fall that include exams, and I tried to find a way to cut them out.  Let me quickly say that my exams are not multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank or any other type that lend themselves to flash cards.  However, a significant part was always quotation identification, and students often made flash cards to learn the authors and names of works, usually tied to a few major ideas; those ideas were almost always the ones that showed up in the quotations on the exam.  In fact, one class told me that I almost always ended discussion on a particular work of literature with a sentence or two summary of what I wanted them to focus on.  The good students always wrote that down, then gave me back some version of that on the exam.

What I’ve switched to now is more frequent short writing assignments, often asking students to connect two or three different works of literature, much as I did on the essay portion of my exams (that portion has been take-home for years).  My hope is that students will learn more about those works by having to write about them, including the authors’ names and the works they wrote, as most of us tend to remember the papers we write in classes more than exams.

Also, my reputation as a professor has been that my papers are demanding and challenging, but my exams are easy.  Students would do poorly on the papers, then use the exams to pull their grades back up, essentially giving a more positive result than the one that accurately reflected their performance and/or ability.  I’ve long been frustrated by this result, so I’m hoping this adjustment will at least ameliorate this problem.

Overall, though, the reason I’m not giving exams is because life doesn’t use flash cards.  I want my students to be able to think, and thinking isn’t measured by what students can memorize the night before/morning of an exam.  They need to spend more time processing the material in a way that will truly help them think about it.  I’m hoping that leads students to my office for conversations that go beyond standardized tests.

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