Why do we have exams and tests?

Exams and tests seem to be the logical extension of knowledge. I learn something “official”, therefore I must be tested on it otherwise there is no proof that I really “know” it. So goes the agreed-upon logic.

There are just as many reasons to disagree with this. A more spiritual argument would be that the process of learning is a chance for personal growth in which we feel connected and positive. “I have learned something new” is one of the most beautiful experiences we can have in life. “Watch out because you will be tested in this” abruptly contradicts this.

Two opposite types of learning?

I personally believe that learning for the sake of knowledge can be placed in opposition to learning for a test. They are not the same act of learning, neither spiritually nor in the approach.

Discovering the works of the famous English poet Milton and being moved by the experience leads to a more personal perception of the poetry. Studying Milton for a test will bring the experience down to a factual analysis of Milton. “Name 3 themes in this poem”, might be the exam question.

And if all the while, the students were exclusively reading Milton within the context of an upcoming school test we can easily see how the experience would be tainted and diminished from the start. The reading would be factual and already reflect the necessities of the test.

As a general rule the examination boards do not consider a proof of “real knowledge” to be able to answer the question: “Tell me how beautiful Milton’s poetry is.”

(Above: Mary is missing a certification to prove she can sew.)

This is true in non-academic learning also. If during a visit to the forest a parent teaches a child how to tie a series of interesting knots, it might awaken the excitement and magic of learning. If the parent added “listen carefully because I’m going to test you on this when we get home”, the spiritual awakening might easily change course.

As soon as testing is involved, it seems to have the double effect of transforming the spiritual side of learning and the nature of the learning itself.

Spiritual growth VS test-based growth

We could reproduce this experience by as many things as there are to know and we would come to the same conclusion. Learning for a test and learning in a spiritual way are not the same activity. The quality of the result will not be the same either. Some types of learning require emotion and spiritual connection. Passing a test is usually void of these states of mind.

In my experience as a reader of John Steinbeck, I first discovered his writing with my emotions. His words struck a place in me that my later university research did not. One part of me knows Steinbeck as a reader and the other part knows him through my thesis. If have since forgotten all I researched about him for my Masters thesis but I know full well which passages caused me an emotional response in Tortilla Flat and Grapes of Wrath.

In an identical way, it is only when I put the poems of William Blake to music that I truly understood his poetry. I reproduced the experience with French poets from the Middle-Ages because of the benefits of acquiring the knowledge for a practical purpose. No one tested me on this, but I have a damn good understanding of it none the less.

(Above: Student happily engaging in the poetry of Milton in view of a spiritual awakening)

Why do we pretend to believe in tests?

I say we pretend because deep down we know we are doing just that. Which parent hasn’t consoled their child by saying “It’s only a test. You’ll do better next time”. Months from now, no one will speak about the failed test because we know it has no bearing on the course of life.

Tests are rather more about proving to society that a person was the holder of a certain knowledge at one precise point in time. We then perform the equation of assuming that if the student knew it on the day of the exam, we can reasonably conclude that they will remember most of it post-test.

driving test expertise

(Picture: I have a license but I may have forgotten a thing or two)

Taking the example of a driving test, we could easily imagine three cases before, during and after in which the test falls short and does not represent the actual skill of the driver.

A novice might actually drive less well on the day of the test precisely because they are being judged. Second, a seasoned motorist who has been on the roads for decades could equally fail a test if they were made to pass one. Third, the holder of a new driving permit will continue to improve their skill as a driver after the test.

For all intents and purposes, if I were asked to re-sit one of my exams I would just as soon have my qualifications as a Linguist revoked. Just as a motorist, I had the knowledge to pass the test at one very precise point in time.

Diplomas and certificates can lead to surprising consequences in the “real” world. My own brother who is a PhD holder in the science of Agronomy regularly meets Professors who have authority to regulate over farming practices on a national scale. Many of them never leave their campus office or ever interact with farmers. As can be expected, many of their decisions do not work in the practical realities of farming.=

(Above: Farmer following the guidelines of higher-ups he has never met)

My wife who is an auditor regular explains to me to which extent the exams are far from representing the realities of the profession. When she had just qualified, she was not yet a “true” auditor for lack of experience. Now that she has gone back to studying, she finds it hard to reconcile years of “real life experience” in auditing with the ambiguous questions on the test!

The test well and truly has a life of its own.

No tests on this French website!

On this learning website, I did not include quizzes or tests for these reasons. I consider the act of learning French an experience in personal growth that is spiritual and should be fueled by an energy other than getting the answer right.

The TOEFL English test is a prime example of a failed learning experience. Students don’t study to know and enjoy English but rather for the benefits of having a TOEFL certificate. The very format of the test as a race against time is already shaping their understanding of English.

The trumpet player Miles Davis studied at the Institute of Musical Art. But is it what made him becomes Miles Davis? Is it the personal learning he did on his own or the tests that made him great? Can we agree that a large part of his true learning happened as a separate experience to the academic testing?

Testing the tests

Perhaps the next time we learn something big or small, we could ask ourselves which form this would take in the context of a test. It is probable that our knowledge will look quite different under this new angle.

How do we place “learning to pull out weeds from the garden” within a test?

Should it be a written test, an oral or a demonstration of the skill?

Perhaps the exam question might look as follows:

A factual test such as this formats the knowledge to fit the possibilities of a “right or wrong” questioning to lead to a final score.

But is it the person who expertly pulls weeds or the one who has passed a test on weeds who truly hold the knowledge?

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