Do exams test ability to reproduce content or understanding?

Published: March 21, 2016 at 10:33 am

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.

Exam-tactics
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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