As students of higher education, we are all currently attempting to “qualify” ourselves for a specific career. Given the variety of personalities and ethnicities that characterize the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it goes without saying there is a broad range of learning styles expressed within the student body.
Acknowledging there is a diversity of beliefs regarding the purpose of education, it is reasonable to question why the use of standardized tests, in the form of Scantrons, have become so universal. Trying to appease every single student’s method of learning is quite unreasonable, but strictly regimenting testing to a multiple-choice format has more educational drawbacks than benefits.
In trying to determine why some members of the faculty routinely use the Scantron format, it is fair to acknowledge there have been some changes in higher education throughout the past few decades. Far more people are choosing to attend a university after their secondary education nowadays. With hundreds of students to educate in a respective course, it seems a bit easier to regulate testing with a standardized exam.
Distributing tests in this format, however, is not as helpful of an evaluation tool for the instructor. Within the multiple-choice format, the correct answer is placed in front of the student and he or she must discern which answer is correct through recollection. In most cases, these types of exams reward a student’s ability to quickly answer superficial questions that require knowledge of a concept and not application of an idea. By giving an exam under a time crunch, an instructor may be hoping to instill quick critical thinking skills, but really this just scratches the surface of a student’s mental capacity.
Since standardized tests are comprised of indisputable answers, the test taker’s abilities of reasoning and creativity within the field of study are severely limited. The instructor is given a high degree of control in that he or she determines what concepts to include in the test, the wording and content of the exam questions, the designation of a correct answer, how the test is administered and an analysis of the results in the form of a grading curve. The only objective aspect of these standardized exams is the scoring, since a machine does that.
The instructor’s authority of format for the exam may turn out to be a way of manipulating how the content of the course is communicated. This happens when the professor attempts to “teach to the test.” In doing this, teachers focus on presenting the parts of the curriculum they have decided to cover on the next test. While it is definitely necessary to consolidate the broad amount of information within almost every course, teaching in this fashion influences the student to just memorize the content relevant to the upcoming exam and not really retain any of it upon completion.
As students are influenced to recognize and recall certain information in a limited curriculum, study habits are affected. Students resort to the cramming technique during the night before a test when they know they will only be tested on the terms included in the study guide. While it seems easier and less stressful to take a structured, standardized test, the learning process is made into more of an itinerary than an experience.
Not all multiple-choice tests do this. One example could be the exams in the Psychology 202 courses of our university. These exams usually contain detailed questions that demand critical thinking regarding theories and examples. You wouldn’t cram for this type of test because it does not entail a broad overview of unambiguous facts.
While test answers for analytical classes such as calculus and physics can really only be right or wrong, the exams are usually formatted as questions with multiple parts. This is a more effective way of testing by requiring the student to apply information presented in lecture by writing out the solution to a problem. This design is truly a test of knowledge wherein you will not be able to simply guess the correct answer.
Opposition to bluebook, written-answer and cumulative exams is usually based on the idea of having to work too hard or too much. Regimenting the concepts of a specific course into a multiple-choice exam limits the long-term effects of education. More detailed, comprehensive tests would produce lasting abilities in the application of knowledge.
Aaron Linskens ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism and English.