Why do we have exams?

For a while now, I have been thinking about exams, and why our performance in school to a large extent is based on our results from exams. The idea behind an exam is that you read, read, read until your brain is overloaded and then you walk to school with 1000 different thoughts in you head and you try to spit them out during the coming 2-4 hours. Most often, on a simple piece of paper. Paper and pen, 2010?

For the first time ever during my university studies we had an exam on the computers a few week ago. Hello? For the first time. It’s not like the computer is a new thing or so, it has been around for a while and one could believe that even old institutions as schools would have realized that, but apparently not.

I can, maybe, see the benefit of having exams during the bachelor education, where the point is to learn the basics from different theories and fields. But why, o why do we still use the same method of measuring performance on the Masters level?

Do they honestly think that we will solve problems based on what we have in our small brains at the moment? Do they honestly believe that we will come up with solutions on a piece of paper? I don’t think so, and therefore I don’t think our performance should be judged in that way.

Our brains cannot absorb all the knowledge that is out there – it is impossible. Below are two pictures from Robin Teigland illustrating this, if we cannot know everything, we need to know how we can access it . 


What we need are tools on how to solve problems and how to find the relevant knowledge in the big information jungle out there. Yes, we do use these techniques when solving cases and when writing reports, and I love it. But the basic mindset is still there – knowledge is when you know something, not what you do with your knowledge or how to find new ideas. What happened to the over-used word creativity?

To be honest, I do not think that the people who are best at filling up their heads with information and then spit it out during an exam will be the ones that are solving problems in the best way at a future job. (And  if that is a good characteristic to have, at our program all of us have high grades from the Bachelor level, and have apparently showed that we know how to perform well on exams.) I think that people who are able to collaborate with others, who know the tools of how to access good and reliable information in a short time and can pick out the most important things will have the biggest opportunities of doing a good job. 

That’s why I’m very surprised that we, as Master students, are still supposed to work in a way that was invented a couple of hundred years ago, when knowledge was something only a small percentage of the population could access. Today that is not the case, we have all the information and knowledge we need around us, we just need to know how to navigate and how to use it as soon as we’ve found it.

Bye bye to exams!

Note: I “borrowed” the pic from here.


About Lisa Enckell

VP Marketing at Wrapp. Swede trying to adjust to all the sunshine and fog in San Francisco. And the great cocktails.
This entry was posted in Stockholm School of Economics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Why do we have exams?

  1. pierrefect says:

    An interesting post indeed. 🙂

    I agree to a certain degree. I have never believed, even at the bachelor level, that exams are a solid indicator of what you know. They are more like a time dependent slice of your knowledge tied to ones momentary ability, and thereby highly temporal in nature. Nonetheless, they do serve a good purpose in “checking off” that one understands core theories and models in a course. This is also the reason for why I seriously like the way they use exams in 2303 and 2304. In both courses exams are just a small part of your entire grade and in 2304 it is literarily to make sure that you know the basics before the “real” work begins (in depth case work).

    • Riikka says:

      I agree that exams are best used early on as a way to check students’ understanding of some basic concepts. Final exams, on the other hand, can well be replaced by problem-solving projects and reflective essays.

  2. merzak says:

    good point of view.but we need to test ourself in one moment or one period of time.because we need to make error.

  3. Riikka says:

    Lisa, I share your frustration with still having to write exams in a Master’s program. It feels that even many instructors have started to question the point in exams – at least when they are used to evaluate students’ learning based on their ability to repeat theories and ideas in an exam. The solution has been to ask broad questions that require integrating different theories and ideas.

    Do broader questions do a better job in assessing (and facilitating) learning? I don’t think they necessarily do. In addition to not requiring creative problem solving and information search skills, the exam situation does not allow for reflective thinking. A few stressed hours aren’t enough for really connecting different perspectives. Not for me, at least. Sure, I can write my way to a good grade but I’ve often left the exam hall feeling that I would have learned more had I had the chance to write an essay instead of an exam.

    • enckelli says:

      Exactly. And I guess people who are more into pedagogy can show even more disadvantages with exam as one (or most often the only) way of measuring performance. Students are different and learn in different ways, as we all know. For that reason exams will only benefit some, whereas others are much better at problem solving, creative thinking or what ever it could be.

      To be honest, the more I think about this issue, the more frustrated I get. I cannot find any good arguments of why we should have exams… can you?

  4. Beatrice says:

    Im studying Business Management in Florida. Most of my exams are composed of 40 questions of multiple choice. I know how to study, I know how to print all neccesary information in my head the day before a test. I do my test, I score a high grade and I’m happy. But guess what, if I had done the same test a week later, I would not score half of the points. Exams stimulates to the way of learning we don’t need today. Before the internet came, it was important to memorize and remember information. Today, we have google. The school should focus on how we can receive the information needed, and how to use it in an efficient way.

    • enckelli says:

      Hm, interesting with the heavy dependance on miltiple choice, spontaneosly it feels even worse… Like it’s only on the surface, but i can be wrong i don’t have that much of experience with multiple choice exams…

  5. Eleni says:

    I’ve been thinking about the meaninglessness of exams since I was in high school. In Greece, the only thing the educational system promotes is dry memorizing and by-heart learning of often obsolete knowledge that hasn’t been revised since the 70’s. I remember myself laughing at my school book teaching us the “revolutionary” theories of Adam Smith and John Keynes. No matter how good this knowledge is, it is unquestionably old.

    Even when reading more contemporary theories, like the ones we have at school now, I still wonder: How relevant is this for my everyday life (as a marketer)? As someone mentioned (unfortunately I don’t remember who, but I think it was a guest lecturer this semester – help me if you know), models and theories are attempts to codify and explain something we can’t understand. That something is usually the reality.

    And even if we assume the theories in our compendium are relevant and apply to today’s world; how the heck are we supposed to put that to the test during an exam? Theoretical cases are not the best way to test theoretical models on whether or not they apply to the REAL world.

    I agree with Lisa; for the last 5 years, I would rank exams as my #1 “wasting-valuable-grey-cells-and-precious-time” activity.

    • enckelli says:

      Agree with you to some extent Eleni. But someone said: to understand the world today you must know your history… Or something like that. Theories are useful but we still need to focus more on How to implement/use them.

      When reading all the comments here it feels like we need a new way to measure our performance. So i guess the 1 million question is: if we don’t have exam, what should we have instead?

      • Eleni says:

        Theories are for sure useful and I think they represent the starting point for further discussion. What I question is the ability of exams to test the knowledge of these theories and their applicability to realistic situations.

        Maybe instead of exams, we should have more business projects, some real market research and seminars/focus groups that deal with the implementation of theories to current problems?

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  8. Kevin Young says:

    I really hate exams too, but I am now the one giving the exams rather than taking them. Your final question of what to use instead is very difficult. No test is a perfect assessment of knowledge, but who’s to say a project would be a perfect assessment? Facts regurgitated on tests may seem to not relate to real life situations, but the nice thing about a written test is that you can get a simple number. You can say “right” or “wrong” quickly for each question, tally the points, and assign a grade, thereby ranking students in some way. If I were trying instead to assign grades based on individual projects it would be MUCH harder for me to come up with a justification for the grade. I spend way too much time grading, and I hate it. I don’t think it’s a good use of my time, and I feel like the model is to push information into heads instead of pulling students into an inquiry. However, as long as there are grades I think there will be tests. And as much as I hate tests and find problems with them, I recognize that there is a correlation between what a person knows about a subject and how well they can test on that subject. It’s not a perfect correlation, but it’s the best I can do.

    If you have a better alternative I am anxious to hear it!

  9. Lisa Enckell says:

    Hi Kevin, interesting comment. I do agree with you that it is a difficult issue, if not exams what should we have instead?

    I think we should have a larger perspective, do we need grades? In the medical training in Sweden you either pass or fail. Whether or not there should be grades is an interesting- but maybe another discussion.

    I think what we need to re-think is the perception of knowledge. What is knowledge? Is it when you actually know something by heart or is it when you have the skills of accessing the relevant knowledge? If we emphasize the skills rather than knowing by heart, then exams are pretty useless.

    I personally, prefer cases and projects, when we actually work practically with an assignment. And we’ve also had business labs where we work practically in simulation programs and other types of activities in class which is very worthwhile.

    I would like to point out however, that I do not agree with Jeff Jarvis when he questions why we have universities and asks why not everyone can become a teacher and everyone a student. I think, that it is more important now than ever to develop a critical thinking and learn how to evaluate and weight information from different sources. When everything is easily accessible it gives us as readers/students/citizens a larger responsibility when re-producing and produce knowledge.

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  12. yashi says:

    i hate exams……….

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  14. shubhangi gupta says:

    their r nice ideas,about papers

  15. Riyaj Shah says:

    Exam is best way of measuring performance. I agreed you to some extend but it’s not the point of frustration. You must see the benefit of having exams during the bachelor education. You can judge yourself what is good or bad.

  16. Shahina saran says:

    Exams is the litmus test…..It shows ur ability..children should not be afraid with exams……

  17. Dylan Mead says:

    I am just a simple high-school student, and I hate exams. Most seem to think it is because it is just rote memorization but it’s not. We hate them because they waste our time. We learn the basics and they test us on them once a week. And then they decide “We need to test them on EVERYTHING halfway through the year. I am writing this during an exam period, because I am exempt. But I honestly believe we need to move on from the idea of paper and pencils. We need to move to the idea of using electronics in classes. We have the equipment, but the administration refuses to let us use it in a good way. So I honestly believe that our current educational system sucks. Things need to be rethought out with the knowledge that we have technology available. Not just pens and pencils.

  18. The girl that hates school says:

    Fuck exams :3

  19. vasudha says:

    you seem like my likemind !!! there are so many dumbos in my class who do well in exams…..i would break their faces i swear ……..i want to go for research badly i think i am good at coming up with solutions to new problems….but in this system children who come up with solutions in exams are thought to be smart ….regardless of the fact that they have already learnt how to come up with the solution !! lol!!

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