The internet has made it so much easier to collaborate. People can work together on projects online, or consult with virtual tutors, or even buy their way into a “grade A essay”. Social media gives everyone with internet access the power to have virtual conversations. Naturally, many of these conversations lead to classmates collaborating and sharing knowledge or informationwith each other.
Often times, these partnerships lead to an exercise frowned upon by formal institutions: the sharing of past exams.
You’ve most likely heard of Notewagon, one of many mediums that enable students to share and monetize their notes. The infrastructure used to share notes has been around for a long time: For example, many Canadian universities host a high speed peer-to-peer network (I love you, DC++), where students can choose to share files like movies, photos, pictures, music, and documents. Naturally, students can also share notes for classes.
Organizations like Notewagon don’t serve mainly as file hosts; they serve as catalysts for a change in paradigm. With a new incentive (money) for sharing notes, last year’s students have a reason to pass on their wisdom to their following year’s. Their self-interest becomes intertwined with the success of the people who download their notes; the downloaders can then vouch for this specific person’s notes and generate more revenue for the uploader.
Now, we are in a dilly of a pickle.
The Multiple-Choice Dilemma
Multiple-choice exams are used in most institutions, starting as soon as seventh or eighth grade. Exams using this format often have composed of questions selected from an existing bank. As past exams also draw from the pool of exam bank questions, any students that have had a glance at a past exam will have a good idea of what the questions and answers are. This means that students can simply memorize questions and answers, and regurgitate those answers right on the exam.
Previously, this wasn’t as big a problem because past exams weren’t floating around as much. Now, with an incentive to share files, past students may be more likely to upload their own past exams in the hopes of generating some extra cash. Should this happen, average marks will rise, and people that don’t truly understand subjects will be whizzing by with flying colours. Recruiters will be bringing people who don’t know what they should know into organizations, and the situation will not be pleasant.
In order to understand the solution, we need to understand where multiple-choice came from, and what existed before it.
A Different Kind of Test
In ancient Greece, Socrates tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response. To them, accuracy was for shopkeepers.
Today, educators often hold up the Socratic method as the best kind of teaching.
- Jay Mathews, The Washington Post
Before the educated population grew so vast, teachers and mentors (like Socrates) would evaluate students based on conversations. Multiple-choice serves as a substitute that’s easy to evaluate, but certainly not as rigorous or as engaging. Professors now don’t need to have those conversations with students to see whether or not they understand the topic; they simply slip their scantron into a machine and watch it spit a mark out.
The spreading of collaboration simply exposes this flaw in the multiple-choice exam system. As this happens, will schools start restricting past exams even more, and consider that as a form of cheating? I remember in one of my exams, professors made sure to limit the number of exams to the number of students across all classes and not a single copy more, to avoid the possibility of someone not in class escaping with a valuable copy of the exam.
Or, will schools be forced to embrace case-based teaching and evaluation? Perhaps social media is a tool which can enable profs and experts to have conversations with students, and can somehow be used to better evaluate student performance.
For those of you curious to find out more, Seth Godin has an interesting free eBook called Stop Stealing Dreams that is focused around the education system.