Exams and evolution

Published December 01 2016

As a university instructor, I have spent years emphasizing to my students the importance of natural selection in the evolution of the organisms and processes that we biochemists and molecular biologists study every day. Higher organisms have emerged and developed in response to the need to overcome selective pressures imposed on them from their environment. It occurs to me that teaching and learning share a lot in common with evolution.

As in biology, student behavior is shaped by the advantages obtained by accruing the greatest possible benefit (e.g., points, grades or credits) from a given investment in time, resources and energy. This drive toward actual or perceived efficiency is not a character flaw; it is our natural default setting. When you or I go on MapQuest, we almost always opt for the most direct or the fastest route rather than the most culturally enriching or scenic. Those of us who hold tenure-track faculty positions constantly make choices on the basis of whether we think the promotion and tenure committee will reward a particular activity.

All this prompts the question of why so many of us neglect to leverage this ingrained behavior when constructing examinations. I would argue that no matter how much time and effort we invest in developing curricula and learning objectives designed to stimulate the development of analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills, if our examinations are dominated by recall-type questions, we are substantially undermining these efforts. If recall is the most efficient way to garner their desired grade, the majority of our students naturally will engage in memorization and invest the minimum effort possible in developing higher cognitive reasoning skills, no matter how doggedly we try to reinforce them in class. It is not my intent to disparage flipped classrooms, clickers or inquiry-based learning, but rather to encourage better alignment of this cornerstone of the rewards system with these efforts.

Now many of us, especially those working at large schools characterized by large class sizes, could argue that the logistics of scoring hundreds of quizzes and exams on a regular basis restrict us to employing question formats that are machine-gradable. We also can argue that one class is insufficient to convert students who have been fed a continual diet of multiple-choice exams. There are practical limits to what can be done. On the other hand, what if every examination our students took included at least one or two questions that challenged them to engage in analytical or critical reasoning, to synthesize rather than select?

Such a coordinated approach would spread the logistical burden across the faculty, undermine the perception that such questions represent a temporary aberration peculiar to a specific class or instructor, and provide the benefits of continual practice and reinforcement over time. So next time you put together an exam, try exploiting “selective pressure” as a means of stimulating your students to evolve higher cognitive reasoning abilities.

Peter J. Kennelly Peter J. Kennelly is a professor of biochemistryat Virginia Tech.