All Exams Should Be Open Note

By Polly Wenlock

I often wonder if our body’s physiological reactions to common modern-day stimulations and stressors mirror human responses to trauma throughout history. Perhaps a poverty-stricken industrial worker in the 19th century reacted to the fourth typhoid death in his family in the very same manner that I reacted to the utter horror of the modern exam format. Genuinely, I feel we probably experienced a parallel quantity and severity of psychological, and physical upset. While wallowing in self-pity and contemplating the sincere reality of failing chemistry, I reflected on the convoluted format of the exam that I had just undergone. My experience is not unique. Each year millions of university students suffer through their establishments’ adhesion to the traditional examination format for no reason beyond tradition. Surely, the skyrocketing numbers of college students and amount of information available as well as changes in the actual human capacity for memorization indicate the testing of knowledge and ability in college students should be reformatted to fit present-day technology and workplace environments. Why should generation after generation of students have to experience learning as a chore, as suffering, as an experience of pain? Classes should be something for one to enjoy rather than anxiously anticipate- especially because it’s an experience we’re paying for. The cost of tuition framed in our four years of misery makes university the most expensive and least enjoyable rollercoaster ride of all time. 

 The year is 2022, information is globalized, and within the span of a minute, a couple of quick google searches could tell you all you wanted to know- from Einstein’s theory of relativity to all mentions of homoeroticism in Shakespeare’s work. Technology in the 20th century was created to aid and abet humanity’s slothful nature. It makes life easier. Why are we so resistant to those things that make life more doable? Our exam system’s reliance on memorization dates back to a time when this skill was useful in order to further one’s career and social worth. In the age of instant information, memorization is less and less a skill that is demanded in most fields of employment. We live in the modern age and not the 14th century- all exams should be open note. 

The new generation, those raised in the boom of 20th-century technology, lack the capability to memorize in the same manner as generations of the past. Studies¹ show that our frequent dependence on phones, computers, and the internet has adjusted our ability to memorize in the old-timey way, simply because the requirement is no longer there. This is not to say we have all lost our capacity to remember anything. Most researchers agree that the new generation simply utilizes memory differently. While we rely on technology for some aspects of daily life in the modern age, technology means memorization of the abstract and non-physical is no longer a necessity given its instant availability. 

The reach of technology is inescapable. While it often shocks me to see 3, 2, 1-year-olds with iPads and iPhones, the increasingly young consumer base of technology and social media is a reality. Technology has been quickly and deeply ingrained into our society. It makes absolutely no sense to treat this new generation as being of the same psychological orientation as generations before it when their social, educational, and personal experiences are an entirely new phase of human experience. Classical education was built and formatted to the technological confines of the society it existed in. Having grown up in a technological space race, a world where technological and social borders expanded at a speed inconceivable to the pioneers of the classical exam format, the new generation’s interaction with and application of study cannot fit the mold laid out for them. With the ease afforded to them by vehicle technology, nobody would choose to dredge the footsteps of a path taken a thousand times like the Pilgrim’s trail when a modern car would execute the job in a fraction of the time. In the same consideration, why do we degrade our education in ignorance of the technological boom surrounding us? Technology is firmly here to stay and is only going to continue to integrate deeper into our lives. It is entirely valid that we overthrow the current model of examination that taxes students by assuming them to be of a mental disposition belonging to an outdated generation. 

Time limits are also a factor of exams that belong to the bygone era. Time constraints like those sanctioned over exams don’t exist in the same way in the modern workplace. The feats of human achievement that students perform during exams could be dedicated to a whole day under “real-life” circumstances, but are expected to be crammed into a two-hour timespan simply because it’s “a test”. Absolutely, I would agree that deadlines and time constraints are natural to the workforce and daily life. However, the time constraints of the modern workplace –unlike exams— realistically factor the use of 21st-century technology in expediting or abetting a process.

 Timed examinations also prompt degradation of student mental health through the extreme stress levels they induce. While it is natural to expect at least a minor level of stress from any testing, the monumental quantity of stress created by the current format is destructive to human neurological function. Stress, as a consequence of exams, has been proven to cause the human brain genuine inhibition in the ability to learn and recall. Undergoing a stressor like a timed exam, the human brain reacts in a variety of ways. One key example is the RANS¹ reaction which engages fight or flight mode, quickly and seriously impairing the neurological ability to function in brain regions key to learning and memory.  The second reaction (the HPAA)  in this system implements more slowly and binds to receptors, mediating the effects of the first reaction, and aiding the brain’s ability to format memory. Beyond the immediate neurological blocking effect of stress in the exam period, severe stress caused by examination can lead to ongoing mental defection and neuropsychological illnesses such as depression and anxiety². An examination of one’s competency in any topic ought to have no bearing on present or ongoing mental and physical health. Students are being asked to put their bodies and minds on the line to no end, every year that humanity assimilates closer to technology this becomes more and more difficult a task for the human brain to work around. With all this considered, not only are timed exams irrelevant and detrimental, they have no legitimate standing as an assessment of student memory, ability, and fluency as the stress that they produce effectively shuts down the systems biologically responsible for these human functions. 

Most students in upper-level education have chosen to be there. Chosen to attend an institution that punishes their willingness to learn. The (mostly) young adults devoting their time, money, blood, sweat, and tears to their education deserve more respect than they’re being afforded. Instituting traditional forms of assessment like the exam treats the individuals as children as these are the individuals’ traditional exams cater to. Of course, the ability to read or write is a skill that requires memorization. The names and specific dates of archaic statues in Ancient Greece addressed at the tertiary level however are less important. The choice to attend a higher educational institution illustrates the devotion and maturity of the attendee. 

Social law requires everyone to attend primary and high school education, meaning it is debatably natural that the curriculum should have to push a fair few of the less willing individuals through stricter teaching methods. Instituting the same measures in a population that has clearly made the decision to attend is disrespectful and telling of a refusal to treat them as equals. Those in charge of the curriculum in higher-level education, whether that be state board, school board, or even individual professors, should work with modern technology and modern parameters as would serve for the best application of learned practice outside of the institution.   

Institutions should waste less time torturing students with unnecessarily short time constraints and dated technology. To avoid becoming artifacts of a bygone era universities ought to work in conjunction with the students of today to produce innovations for the future. The negative psychological impact of continuing to manifest age-old exam systems is more and more apparent in present and future generations. When a system is conscious of their actions being those of destructive impact, the application of these actions toes the line of abuse. All university testing which is years behind the society it tasks should be reformatted to appreciate the new age of technology appropriately.

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