Traditional testing is not the optimal method for assessing students

By Emma Reilly
Opinion Editor

The past two issues of The Elm presented its readers with two consecutive articles about mask mandate reversals: one for Virginia, one for Maryland. Many states are now following suit, and COVID-19 restrictions are easing up across the nation.

These changes present Washington College students with a daunting reality. Evidently, we are going to be faced with some form of “post-pandemic” college life sooner rather than later. And while there are aspects we will happily welcome back into our lives, traditional testing is not one of them. 

I think most students can agree that months on Zoom can affect one’s studying habits irreconcilably. Personally, Zoom fatigue combined with the stress of living through a pandemic left me worried about everything but my academic performance. 

When the world was falling apart, studying wasn’t — and couldn’t be — my priority. And professors didn’t make it one, either. 

Like many students at the College, my classes adapted to online instruction in a multitude of fashions. Classes structured to meet three times a week only met twice; participation points were derived from some combination of verbal contribution, discussion posts, and chat interjections. Most significantly, the majority of formal assessments my professors gave were open-note. 

Of the professors who didn’t eliminate testing completely while the College was operating virtually, the majority understood that students were unable to perform as well as they typically would due to extenuating circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic was intrusive and ever-present in the minds of students stuck attending college courses from their childhood bedrooms.

Living on campus and taking in-person classes helped renew my regard for academic rigor. I eased back into the studying habits that work for me. However, many students are likely still experiencing academic burnout as a result of the pandemic and some may not be able to so easily retrieve long-dormant habits. 

According to The New York Times, pandemic-related stressors still weigh heavily on students of all ages in 2022. The pandemic is still ongoing, and it would be foolish to say that in-person instruction has rid students of the challenges presented during its earlier stages. 

As we begin contemplating how the College will function in the months and years to come, attention should be devoted to the ways in which academic performance is gauged. Not all students will adapt at the same pace, and that is worth considering. 

It is my belief that traditional exams — of the cumulative, closed note, timed variety — feel out of place at a small liberal arts college that has seen its students through a life-changing, world-altering few years.

Pandemic problems aside, WC students’ academic abilities and skills are varied. Some students have extreme testing anxiety that hinders their ability to recall what they know in a formal testing environment. Some students can communicate better verbally than they can through writing. 

While there are certainly benefits to traditional testing, it often ignores the fact that students all learn, retain, and process information differently.

Most importantly, students at this College — and colleges worldwide — have learning disabilities that affect their academic performance. While accommodations for these students are made available to them through the Office of Academic Skills, assessing progress in a variety of ways would provide greater support for students of all ability levels and learning styles.

“A single student may learn best with one approach in one subject and a different one in another. The best approach for them may even vary day-to-day,” a Kansas University review of learning styles research said. “Most likely, students are best served when a variety of strategies are employed in a lesson.”

I am an English major, so I can write a 10 page final paper about a novel and enjoy doing it. But if you told me to sit down and knock out a 100-question multiple choice test on that same novel in one sitting, it would be torture. I wouldn’t do well; I wouldn’t feel like I’d been given a chance to really prove my mastery of the topic.

Just because I like to write, however, does not mean I learn best through note taking. In fact, I prefer discussion-based instruction. 

Since no one person learns the same way, not all students should be assessed in the same manner. Like classroom instruction, assessments should be diversified and catered toward students — and not simply modeled off the most widely accepted practice.

According to the Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning, varied assessment methods prepare students to apply their knowledge in the workforce, allow them to understand concepts beyond mere memorization, and provide the optimal opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge.

These are skills vital to college students preparing for their future careers. As WC navigates the continually changing landscape of a world impacted by COVID-19, the effectiveness of their testing strategies should be reassessed. 

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Featured Photo Caption: Every student learns differently, so testing methods should be adjusted accordingly.

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