Testing knowledge versus testing memory


Alex Droth, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, studies on her laptop on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021 at 12:53 a.m., at William T. Young Library in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Kaitlyn Skaggs | Staff

Jessica Kinsella

Students sit in a silent room, their phones tucked away in bags at their feet as they squint down at the pages of questions in front of them. Weeks of studying have prepared them to regurgitate the facts they’ve been given in class, but the week following exams, they might not remember this information. What’s more, they might not truly understand it in the first place.

When students complete projects or write papers instead of taking exams, they are able to better understand what it is that they are learning. Papers allow students to explain things, and projects help them to actively work on the subject. In this way, projects and papers assist with later recollection of what they’ve learned.

Personally, I would rather do a project or write a paper than take an exam. Papers and projects allow students to showcase what they’ve learned rather than just spitting out the facts. Anyone can memorize a set of facts, but multiple choice questions don’t really show that students can put these ideas into context.

UK sophomore Jazmin Huarta and senior Lindsay Roesel agree. “I just feel like if I take an exam, I’m going to worry about studying about … the content that we learned throughout the semester, and I feel like it’s kinda different with a research paper or like a project … we put in everything that we learned throughout the semester,” Huarta said.

Roesel brought up the issue with exams being a lot of information that students have “to gather in such a short period of time.”

“[With] exams it’s kind of like recall questions but I guess, it’s just easier to kind of put that knowledge into something else rather than just an exam,” Roesel said.

In the real world, once students leave college, they are expected to put these ideas and concepts that they have learned into play. For example, a journalism major does not just have to know that journalists have to find sources and verify information — they are expected to actually do this if they want to be successful in their career.

Similarly, science isn’t just about the facts; the experiments are equally as important. A student’s science grade should be based just as much on projects — including lab reports, which are written explanations proving that not only can they properly follow a procedure but that they also have a solid understanding of the results — as it is from exams.

Papers and projects shouldn’t replace exams; instead, they should be included in exam grades. It’s not helpful to memorize facts if you can’t put them to good use.

Some students prefer a paper or project over taking an exam because of their individual strengths and weaknesses.

“I’m just not a very good test taker. I excel in writing … so I prefer papers,” Hannah Ewing, a senior at UK, said.

Professors will also know how to help struggling students if they know where and how the students have gone wrong, something that is difficult to discern when looking at pages of multiple choice answers. Papers show students’ thought patterns and explain how they reached their conclusion; whether the answer is right or wrong, this will be a major help to the instructor grading them.

Students are also able to receive partial credit for written-out answers on projects and papers, while with exams, it is often more of a hit-or-miss. Either a student circles the right answer or they get no points for that question.

Exams are undeniably important in higher education, but papers and projects are just as significant. If projects and papers are included in students’ midterm grades, we will be showing that we are capable of proving what we’ve learned in action, not just repeating facts. And as Huarta pointed out, projects and papers are just “more fun.”