One of our loyal readers, Gary Bartlett (aka 'Gazza'), wrote me last week about my post on a more retrospective essay exam idea I was tinkering with. Gary confessed to being skeptical about essay exams in general, and his thoughts were provocative enough that I thought we'd post them here (starting below the fold).
GARY: I started to write the following thoughts in response to Michael’s post about exams last week, but I realized they were rather too tangential to his post. So Michael kindly offered me this chance to air them independently. I’d like to hear what others think.
I’m against essay exams in philosophy (and in others disciplines, I think, though I’ll stick to philosophy here). I think exams of any kind have only limited use in philosophy. I use them only in introductory classes, and I ask only short-answer and multiple-choice questions. (Multi-choice questions are an issue on their own, of course. I won’t address that here except to say that I used to think they were inappropriate for philosophy, but I changed my mind. With care and attention put into their construction, and used judiciously, I believe they can be very effective for certain purposes.)
My first kind of reason for thinking that essay exams aren't a good fit for philosophy classes is similar to some of the worries that Michael voiced in his post last week. Even given the revised format he suggests, though, we’re still asking students to produce the essay or essays in a matter of 2-3 hours. And that doesn’t fit well, I think, with the goal we have for our classes. We want to see students engaging with texts and ideas in a thoughtful, reflective way. Asking students to turn out an essay within an hour or two is not very conducive to finding out whether they can be thoughtful or reflective about the material, because such things take time. Essay exams are more conducive to finding out how much of the course material students have memorized. But although memorization of material is perhaps some part of what we want students to get out of our classes, it is only a small part, and it’s only there at all in the service of the more important goal of reflection, thoughtfulness, and so on.
Open-book essay exams would be better, since they would reduce the emphasis that the format places on being able to remember material. But still, in an exam situation it’s not really going to be possible for students to engage in careful and critical reading of and writing about texts.
A second kind of worry I have is that essay exams foster in students a damaging attitude toward academic writing: the idea that writing an essay is something one does relatively quickly. Students already tend to think that papers get written ‘in one fell swoop’, in some sense: that you start at the start, you write for a while, and then you’re done. I don’t suppose that giving essay exams will make students think that we write papers in an hour or two; but it probably does reinforce their idea that papers don’t involve much in the way of reflection, re-writing, and so on.
What do others think about this? Are there benefits to essay exams that I’m missing? (I do, of course, assign essays for my classes – just not in exams.)