вторник, 19 июня 2012 г.

A Justification for Excellent Marks


Being a fifth year student these days I am experiencing my tenth set of exams in university (oh, that's an anniversary!) As some students do I become tired and nervous when a semester draws to a close and consequently to exams - this particular semester is not an exception of any kind. These feelings usually are not caused by intensive studying during the term - instead these tend to be produced by insufficient studying. Moreover the lack of confidence is intensified by the simple fact that your knowledge and skills are to be condensed into a set of raw numbers or other symbols - your marks. 

I suppose that such state of affairs feels familiar to many students and I believe that some of them have faced an idea that the marks are frequently irrelevant as well. Saying 'irrelevant' I mean that marks do not reflect the level of student's knowledge and skills - the notion is evident considering the fact that generally it is too difficult to accurately assess the person's skills as well as knowledge by the means of a single examination and, besides that, such an assessment - even if it is accurate enough - can be much harder to map to the domain of numbers or symbols like A and D - the appearence of marks doesn't matter. This idea looks as obvious as safe, although some of it's derivatives turn out to be dangerous - it is very easy to decide not to perform any active preparation for exams if one believes that marks don't bear any meaning. Really, what can make you fight for treasures if you know these cost hardly anything?

Another problem that I see discouraging students from active studying in the end of a semester is seeming futility of some courses. It strikes hardly in most Russian universities where curriculum is fixed - that is the speciality you choose when enrolling or after the first year of study determines to the extent of 90% the set of courses which you will study. Such a system somehow simplifies student's life, but it also has significant drawbacks  - one of these is the possible and rather common failure to assure students that they actually need to study some particular discipline. This hardly helps students' training - particularly it fails to make them actively and properly study for exams. These arguments against preparation for exams may sound sensible - nevertheles I will try to partially overcome at least one of them - namely the idea that marks don't reflect the things they are supposed to reflect. 

Let us put the question "Should we actively prepare for exams?" aside for a moment and try to understand why don't marks reflect the level of student's knowledge. As I have said it may be rather difficult to evalueate the level of knowledge via an examination. These difficulties are generally caused by the nature of examinations - I mean the examinations that usually face. Commonly the person who tests you tries to evaluate your skills by analyzing your response to his or her questions. Moreover, examiner usually pays attention not only to the correctness of your answers but also to their completness as well as to your behaviour. Answering questions correctly and completely may require remembering a lot of things while making a proper impression on examiner is possible if you feel - or, at least, look - confident. I've already mentioned the possibility of significant problems with confidence during exams. As for remembering lots of details relevant to any particular course, I truly believe that such a thing is not of any importance if we speak of education and skills obtained through it. Moreover, the more we move towards the age of higly available learning and reference materials (or are we already there?) - the less inportant becomes one's ability to remember numerous low-level details. Here is a simple example: some programming language tutors (not very good ones usually) do prompt students to remember various very-low-level syntax features of the language being learnt, while from my point of view it is much more important to explain students the overall capabilities of the language and the key paradigms it is based upon. At the same time remebering low-level stuff seems to me not important - it will be developed through writing many programs - not through learning the things by heart. This idea becomes quite vivid when we speak of a language with complex syntax - say C++. I don't actually remember all the low-level details of this particular language, but it doesn't prevent me from writing programs in it because I usually need hardly a couple minutes to consult language reference available online about any particular detail that I need to use. Such an example of examiner's requirements may seem exaggerated but I do occasionally face something like this and encounters of this kind don't encourage me to study harder for exams - in fact these don't motivate to anything good at all.

From the other side the requirement to remember huge amount of non-important details is frequently delusive. The reason for this is that right-minded and experienced examiners usually ask questions that do not require all the irrelevant things like remembering low-level details - instead they know the questions that allow them to more or less accurately assess whether or not a particular student understands and feels the subject. So their questions prompt students just to combine good reasoning with their conceptual knowledge of the course subject. I aknowledge the fact that not all examiners behave like this, but I do hope that most teachers that one faces during his or her study do have preoper objectives and therefore perform examinations in a good way.

It turns out that thinking of your examiners as of the good ones is quite a good and helpful attitude because, besides the fact that it is the right way to think of other people, it also helps you switch the process of preparation for exams from attempts to memorize lots of facts to the study intended to develop deep understanding of the key concepts, problems, techniques and other high-level stuff that is truly relevant to the subject. However, even in case you believe that the person who performs examination is a dumb monster requiring only absolutely irrelevant things from you, the situation is not as bad as it may seem from the first glance. Firstly, it is common to have wrong impression about the examiner and secondly, even if you are not mistaken, the preapration for exam won't do any harm to you (except for consuming your energy, of course) - instead it will still help you dive deeply into the matter of the course and hopefully get out of there possessing really good understanding of the stuff. In fact, if one meets the need to memorize lots of details, one will firstly try to understand the forces that produce these details and the connections between them - that is, unwilling to remember many irrelevant things, one's mind will attempt to understand the relevant ones.

So the intensive preparation for exams seems to be worthwhile. That's why, while I still consider marks non-reflective of one's knowledge and skills, after posting this entry I am going to get back to studying for my next examination. To be honest, I should note that, despite my beliefs, I am still quite eager to get good ones - sometimes the contradiction feels confusing. However, there are at least two obvious ways to make marks meaningful: either do nothing, or study hard.

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