I Know The Material – I Just Don’t Do Well on Exams
Leprechauns, unicorns, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, hobbits, orcs – and students who know the material but don’t do well on exams. Mythical creatures.
I’ve met students who claim to know the material but not do well on exams, but when you press them, it turns out they don’t know the material after all. If you can’t answer questions about the material or apply the knowledge in an unfamiliar context, you don’t know it. You might have vague impressions of specific ideas, but if you can’t describe them in detail and relate them to other ideas, you don’t know the material.
In addition to content, every type of exam used in college requires specific, vital intellectual skills. Essay exams require you to organize material and present it in your own words. Short-answer exams require you to frame precise, concise answers to questions. Multiple choice exams require you to define criteria for weeding out false alternatives and selecting one best answer. All of these are useful skills in themselves. If you can’t do well on some specific type of test – learn the appropriate skill.
Many students have trouble working under pressure. That’s about the most useful skill there is.
There Was Too Much Memorization
Sad to say, students have been victims of a cruel hoax. You’ve been told ever since grade school that memorization isn’t important. Well, it is important, and our system wastes the years when it is easiest to learn new skills.
Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can’t possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can’t hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.
Rote memorization is a choice. If you remember facts and concepts as part of an integrated whole that expands your intellectual horizons, it won’t be rote. If you merely remember things to get through the next exam, it will be rote, and a whole lot less interesting, too. But that is solely your choice.
Dutch teaches science at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.