Thursday, May 7, 2009

An Examination of Take-Home Tests

I'm taking Economics 113 this semester. On Monday, we have our mid-term exam. Last class session, a student asked the professor if it could be open book. The professor asked the student to, since this is an economics class, give the costs and benefits of an open-book exam. A back-and-forth ensued. The professor said, since it is more likely that a student would study less and watch American Idol more, the exam would not be open-book. However, it will be open-notes. I'm not sure if he believes students should not be allowed to Idol in particular or enjoy entertainment in general.

Upon reflection, here are my thoughts, economic and otherwise, on the open-book debate. These thoughts came after the class and I said nothing during the exchange.

IF it can be assumed that a student will watch Idol instead of studying, it can also be assumed that one or both of two things economic perceptions are in place for the student:
  1. the student sees more value in watching American Idol than it doing well on an exam
  2. the student sees little marginal benefit in an hour of Idol is more than the marginal benefit in studying
It may be of no surprise that I concluded there is little or no perceived benefit to the student to take an exam. And that may be true. You do not learn anything taking a closed-book exam. (If we assume the student will watch Idol, is it not fair to assume the student will not go back and study his/her incorrect answers?) You get a grade, but you could have gotten a grade through several of many other arbitrary means: homework, presentation, papers, class participation, etc. An exam, itself, is not mandatory for grading. The only thing the student gains from an exam is experience in a very specific and uncommon stress situation--the stress of remembering things and verbally regurgitating them onto a piece of paper during an allotted amount of time in a specific place. I don't have the facts on this, but I'm betting the post-mortem for the Bay of Pigs crisis did not include the phrase, "unfortunate that POTUS did not have more closed-book exams in school."

So, the student does not benefit from the exam. So why take the exam? Because the professor wants you to. Since you are, to a large degree, a captive audience, you do what the professor wants, to a large degree.

So the question goes back to the professor. What is the value in an exam? What is the marginal benefit? Is it worth the time it took for you to write it up? Why do you want the student to take the exam?

I've come up with three reasons (other than "I was told to" or "I dunno; seemed like the thing to do") for a professor to want students to take an exam:
  • To quantify what a student can memorize and verbally regurgitate
  • To quantify what the student understands about the material
  • To make sure the student is exposed to the key objectives for the course
For the rote memorization reason, it would have to be closed book. I don't see another way to test memory; but I also don't see how that's an indicator of how well a student understands material.

To quantify what the student understands about the material, it should be open book or open notes. You can understand a concept without knowing the jargon. You can understand how to use a formula without having it memorized. Open the book/notes so the student has access to the jargon and formula and can more clearly explain what he/she knows and understands.

To make sure the student is exposed to the key "talking points," if you will, no test is needed. Just give it as homework. Create a list of questions about the most important items discussed during the course of the course and tell the student the due date. If the student doesn't know it, the student learns it. If the student already knew, the time saved could be enough to watch an episode of American Idol.

Unfortunately, since I now understand that an exam is of no benefit to me, I have trouble taking them seriously. If you think that grades are important, then my economics course was very costly to me. I hope my prof can live with that.

And have a good day.