Do exams test ability to reproduce content or understanding?

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Last week I had written a post about exams: Do marks determine the future of our children? and received many insightful comments (as always). Two comments rang  a few bells in my head. Hence this post.

Context: I wrote, Marks represent effort. Marks do not represent knowledge or intelligence.

Mr. Arvind wrote:

there is a difference between ” content based ” education and ” an understanding based ” education. this is where Indian and Western education differs.
I do agree the “marks” are important but what they mean to test – content or an understanding ?

Mr. Sundarajan responded to this comment:

I do agree the “marks” are important but what they mean to test – content or an understanding ? – Does it really matter?
I live in USA for past 20 years. I always debate which system is best? Rote learning (our system) or more understanding of the subjects?
Rote leaning is not good for sure, it puts lots of stress on kids who can’t memorize. But what about western side? I know kids work hard 15/20 years during their 9 to 12th grade on too many projects to get very high SAT and other marks to get admission to great /good colleges. (esp Asian parents kids)
There is no doubt about the facilities at western schools or colleges and no way to compare those schools / colleges with those in India. (except may be few)
But at the end of day, 80% or more of these western kids end up doing the same job that ‘we’ immigrants are doing at work. Leave the 10 to 20% extreme – lowly talented or very highly talented or genius. We compete very well with these 80% people and at times excel. So in my opinion, each system has its own merits and as long as one has the adaptability, one will succeed in life.

Wow! A crucial observation about whether marks evaluate –content or understanding? and an equally crucial observation – ‘does it matter?

The second question is easier to answer. Does it matter if exams test the students ability to reproduce content or the students understanding?

Does it matter, of course it does! We discussed the importance of individuality in the previous post and that it requires nurture. A curriculum which  takes understanding seriously plays a crucial role in developing a child’s individuality. By the time they are ready to graduate, they would be in a much better situation to know ‘what to do’ if they understand a good amount of what they learn. Otherwise, it would be impossible to discern.

Of course, adaptability is key as mentioned by Mr. Sundarajan. Adaptability like intelligence can be acquired. A school that tests students the right way encourages to adapt better.

Since it matters, it becomes important to ask the first question: Do exams test the students ability to reproduce content or the students understanding?

I can confidently state that the majority of exams offered at many established ‘institutes of ‘national importance’* (eg. IITs, IIMs, IISc) do test understanding simply because the question paper does not want a reproduction of content but an application of concepts learnt. There will be exceptions anywhere, but they are small. How about NITs/IISERs*?

*The full List of Institutes of National Importance

I cannot say the same about engineering colleges and arts and science colleges. In fact, I know colleges where the students request teachers not to ask any math problems in their Physics exam. This is like saying I want to learn the swimming, but do not wish to get wet! The hapless teachers, frustrated and helpless oblige the students, else much of the class might fail.

Students in many colleges are only required to reproduce content covered in class. They are never tested if they have understood concepts.  This is a sad state of affairs. If they go on to rise up the ranks in their workplace it is almost entirely because of their attitude honed in their own time.

There is a TED talk (don’t know who/where) which says (western) schools systematically destroy creativity in a child. If there is no competitive exam, marks alone decide which college they join. So it is a problem of varying degree everywhere – not just in India.

Therefore, there is a tendency in schools to focus on marks. There is an implicit belief that ‘understanding’ does not guarantee marks. The joy of learning is assassinated and replaced by comrade Mr. rote (learning).

Rote imposes regimented boredom and leisure (which is crucial to understanding, creativity, scientific temper and creativity) is exiled until much of the child’s youth is destroyed.

Pic Credit: Sean MacEntee

Many parents are not of much help either. They question the school if marks drop and make the kids go to tuition with the sole objective of improving exam scores.

We cannot rely on schools to help our children. Understanding is not on their agenda because they are pulled by different forces – parents and the management wanting visibility via higher averages, toppers, pass percentages etc.

It is up to us. We are their only hope. I stand by what I wrote earlier. Marks represent effort and not intelligence. However, it is up the parents to ensure that the effort represents understanding and an ability to apply concepts to a variety of real -life problems. The rest – individuality, ‘knowing what to do after 12th std’ – will fall in place.

It is more than possible that kids adept at rote may score more than our child, because the system (at least board exams) accommodates it. That short-term pain must be borne for long-term benefits.

To the credit of the schools, a lot has changed for the better since our time, some things remain the same. Education has to be seen as fun and not only as a chore. Only the parents can do this, but considering they are influenced by peer pressure, this is easier said than done in general.

In conclusion, while schools and may colleges are not adventurous enough to test understanding in exams, the child can still consider it as a test of understanding. It will pay, sooner or later.

Which leaves us with a question: If our education system does not promote the importance of understanding, how do our students do well as Mr. Sunderrajan points out? Their intrinsic adaptability aided by support from parents?!

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About the Author M Pattabiraman author of freefincal.comM. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the author and owner of  He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras since Aug 2006. Pattu” as he is popularly known, has co-authored two print-books, You can be rich too with goal based investing (CNBC TV18) and Gamechanger and seven other free e-books on various topics of money management.  He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India” an organisation to promote unbiased, commission-free investment advice. Pattu publishes unbiased, promotion-free research, analysis and holistic money management advice. Freefincal serves more than one million readers a year (2.5 million page views) with numbers based analysis on topical issues and has more than a 100 free calculators on different aspects of insurance and investment analysis. He conducts free money management sessions for corporates  and associations(see details below). Previous engagements include World Bank, RBI, BHEL, Asian Paints, TamilNadu Investors Association etc. Contact information: freefincal {at} Gmail {dot} com (sponsored posts or paid collaborations will not be entertained)
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  1. If the entry GATE to many opportunities in Job or Higher Education in India is through Marks, MARKS automatically take a Higher place. As mentioned by others, our general education system focuses on Marks and students put additional efforts to get the UNDERSTANDING through various channels. Because we focus on MARKS, we generate a lot of UNEMPLOYABLE graduates in every field who needs JOB READY Training later. Sorry to say, even a lot of teachers do not have the depth of the subject and they just VOMIT the textbook and do not have explanation to clear students doubts. Step by Step, we need to overhaul the educational system in India. May be Higher Secondary section first, Middle School next and Primary school later or vice versa as the experts feel. It should be time bound and we should take the experts around the world for this project.

  2. Being from an NIT (albeit not a famous one), I can safely say that content based tests are common in even many of the institutes of national importance. There are exceptions everywhere, but thats small.

  3. Well, being from a top Engineering institute of India, I can safely tell that once you are inside, it is content based exams – rote the class notes and job done!

    At the end of the day – it is all about your attitude; if you want to learn, you will figure out ways to learn [Coursera, edX, Udacity, random blog posts]. If you do not want to, even the spectre of exams wont force you to rote enough.

  4. My average classmates at school have a comparable salary, fixed hour job and more leaves, with lesser stress. Having spent most of my youth studying, and settling late in life, this aspect makes me feel that I ‘d rather make my child smart than look at marks.

  5. I feel that we teach too diverse things to children as compulsory subjects. Subjects selection should happen in Class 9th itself instead of Class 11th and there should be a lot of optional courses. No point making a kid cram history if he is not interested in it.

  6. Exams around the world are designed to measure academic excellence among a bunch of peers. and children who excel academically tend to be bright, hardworking and motivated. but is academic excellence alone a good predictor of success in life? daniel gilbert would argue that emotional intelligence is perhaps a bigger predictor of success.

    1. Agreed. Emotional intelligence will require close contact with a student to judge. Not possible in rooms. We do it for Phd, and Msc/Btech projects.

  7. I think we should take the discussion one level up.. and not just look at financial success as the only goal of education. thought the following quote by JK would be appropriate.

    “A school is a place where one learns both the importance of knowledge and its irrelevance. It is a place where one learns to observe the world without a particular point of view or conclusion. One learns to look at the whole of man’s endeavor, his search for beauty, his search for truth and a way of living that is not a contradiction between conclusion and action. It is a place where both teacher and the taught learn a way of life in which conflict ends.

    It is the concern of these schools to bring about a new generation of human beings who are free from self-centered action, to bring about a mind that has no conflict within itself and so end the struggle and conflict in the world about us.”


  8. Mr. Sundaram is wrong in his analysis. Those Indians who manages to reach US either for work or study belong to top 20% of our students. The geniuses are comprised of just about 1-2% only, because of the sheer number of our students. However, the US’ top 20% students will most likely work in research / banking. And there lies the difference and the answer to his qns of whether it matters. It matters quite hell of a lot.

  9. sir,
    best education i received were from the lectures of my teachers and professors after they finished their subject lectures.

    all these exams systems are not education at all..they are means to getting a job. there is no point debating whether tests destroy creativity or marks or important.

    if one is truly honest most people posting here including me will not want our children to “study” tamil literature or send their children to veda patasala.

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