Quan Nguyen (a fellow philosophy PhD student) made a case for why exams in humanities should be “abolished and replaced by alternative assessments”. Not only do I disagree with his strong conclusion but I think he glossed over some important objections to his arguments. Quan made two sorts of arguments: 1) Exams fail at their stated purpose and 2) Exams have bad consequences for students and staff. Let’s look at each in turn.
First off Quan argued that exams fail to “test real critical competence” and what they do test is broad learning which is the “wrong kind of learning” for the humanities. He argued that exams test clean handwriting, timing, superficial essay structure and reciting things you learned by heart rather than testing how well you understand the material, how well you organise your thoughts and original ideas. Now I do not disagree that exams are more conducive to the former than the latter. But, when PhDs mark exams we actually reward the latter and do not give marks for the former. Students are quickly found out if they rely on merely reciting facts without any actual argument.
Exams are not some ideal but they have their advantages and their disadvantages just like other forms of assessments. On at least one conception of “fairness” exams are better than other forms of assessment. It is a preset time period to which all students (roughly) are put under the same pressure. As such it tries to remove or mitigate the effects of forms of good or bad luck that affect other methods of assessment. One form is the luck of being interested in just a couple of the topics given as essay questions. Exams force students to engage with all the course material. Students are forced to actually critically engage with topics they wouldn’t otherwise research. Another form of luck is students having prior knowledge or access to extra-curricular activities that can help with essay/presentation style assessments. Again students being forced to critically engage with things they do not want to engage with. Another form of luck in group projects is your group members. Exams intrinsically allow for a more level-playing field with variables like a group member’s motivation or interest removed.
On what they do test, Quan argued that exams test a form of broad learning and yet what the humanities are about is “critical thinking”. Whilst I agree that critical thinking is the most crucial element of the humanities I disagree that that is all they are about. Broad learning in the humanities is both good in itself and instrumental for actually engaging in critical thinking. Broad learning forms a foundation of knowledge that develops an understanding of how people, societies and reality generally is more complicated than our intuitions suggest. It forces students to actually internalise conflicting traditions of analysing the world and to develop a healthy sense of intellectual humility.
But even instrumentally, broad learning forms a foundation of knowledge that actually sets the topic about which students can “critically” think. Without the foundation, critical thinking is aimless and can either misinterpret or straight out miss the conceptual links between topics as diverse as anthropology, classics and film studies. Whether students then use it “to waffle seemingly coherent but meaningless phrases” is a choice and not something necessarily caused by broad learning. In fact I would go so far as to say that broad learning is essential at the sub-honours level to actually extract the full-value of deep critical thinking at the honours level. Exams are a fair and reasonable way of testing such learning.
The second sort of argument Quan made was that exams put unreasonable pressure on students and staff. Now, I accept that exams can put a lot of unreasonable pressure generally and unequally on students and staff. But this problem generalises to all forms of assessment. For students, the stress is the same when they have multiple essays/presentations/group projects due together. That we ought to accommodate those with mental health issues applies to all forms of assessments. For staff, marking a series of twenty assessments whether exams or essays is stressful. This is to say nothing of the pressure to organise group projects or time for presentations. The solution for exams is simply to allow a larger window for marking.
All forms of assessments have their weaknesses and strengths. The sensible thing to do is to have a mix of assessments. In the case of exams, rather than abolishing them we ought to make them better. For instance students could be given “Take-Home Exams” or “Exams with questions posted before hand”. Even though the former are essentially essays with a very short due date they both give students more time for critical thinking whilst preserving some fairness and fulfilling the need for a short assessment window.