Forget Exams and Grades, Use Projects

on Feb 4, 2010

I’ve never been a fan of exams or grades while in school. While I typically did well, I found them annoying and rather pointless. Of course, they had a purpose: to determine whether or not we actually learned something (how well this correlated is another discussion). But this created another problem in that our academic history was represented by a bunch of letters and numbers. And students worked to game the system as it was most certainly in their interest to do so. Someone who crammed for an exam could typically do nearly as well as someone that knew her stuff. In the end, it wasn’t true knowledge that mattered, but rather just the grade. Especially bad are the standardized tests which created a large business in gaming the exam (Kaplan does quite well these days).

I propose a different method for evaluating academic ability: projects. I use this word in a loose sense. A project can be a written work (perhaps a thoughtful paper [that goes beyond summarizing] or a few blog posts), or something more “projecty”. A project exhibits critical thinking and most certainly shows if understanding is present. A project is also something tangible, something alive. It shows thought; it shows creativity; it shows work ethic. With our current technology propelling the information age, showing off projects is feasible and inexpensive. This is so much more meaningful than a letter or a number that represents a grade. Speaking of grades, there should be only two: pass and fail. If a project is sufficiently satisfactory, it passes. All other commendable aspects of a project should stand for themselves.

Of course this is not feasible in some class styles – particularly those that are based on memorization. And this touches a root of the problem. Memorization based classes do not require one to use his brain. They don’t require having insights or critical thought. And in that sense, they are utterly useless. Now I’m not saying memorization is a bad thing. It is actually essential to form new ideas, which in turn can be exhibited in projects. I haven’t thought through very many cases at this point, but this does appear to be a more personal and honest way to display academic ability.

I’ll have more to say in future posts but do share your thoughts on this idea.