Yes, you failed again: The State of Tests at Vanderbilt


Tony Owusu

“I am told grades don’t define who I am, but it seems like every exam day I risk the rest of my future on a piece of paper.”

This is the reaction of an anonymous freshman after taking a Calculus exam. This sentiment could be also felt throughout the dorms of first-years a week after taking their General Chemistry exam, a test with an average score of 66.1%.

For many first years at Vanderbilt, Gen Chem and Calc 1 exams can be described as, at best, painful experiences. Alumni and upperclassmen alike look back and are thankful to have passed these courses (or in some cases, to have returned to finish the class for the second time).

First year Leah Melancon after her second Calc 1 exam claimed that, “Tests are too stressful and do not accurately measures students’ intelligence. Time constraints are unrealistic.” Indeed, those who question the usefulness of tests argue that tests are inaccurate measures of student performance and put unnecessary strain on students. For many students, like senior Vania Ejiofor, tests are “not very effective for long-term retention of information. It’s essentially a cram session.”

And to go through a test and come out of it with a low grade can be even more discouraging. Students who worry about tests use up more cognitive resources during a test (leading to lower test scores). In addition, high test anxiety correlates with low self esteem and academic achievement. Because the average of the first Gen Chem test was a 66.1%, this can lead to a vicious cycle for some students; test anxiety is also related to poor study habits. Did the average student only understand 66% of the material taught from the beginning of the semester?

So why do exams exist? Who do they benefit anyways? Why do we need to take them?

Dr. Lori Rafter, a lecturer for Calc 1, says that exams are only a part of the work she gives to students. In addition to exams, she gives graded assignments and quizzes, all of which allow students to determine their comprehension of the material themselves. Test taking, she says, is just one of the skills that students must learn to succeed. In an exam environment, she can determine if students have digested the material well enough to use it under pressure.

As for whether or not first years entering Calc 1 are prepared for the material in the class, she says that high school material requires a different level of comprehension. Because Vanderbilt pulls students from all states across the U.S. and many countries around the world, these students arrive at Vanderbilt with varying levels of math skills. She argues that students must be dedicated in order to do well because math is a “vertical subject,” requiring students to go back and learn information.

But the majority of students’ grades in classes like Calc 1 and Gen Chem still come from exams. So although lecturers like Dr. Rafter can give different types of assignments, many students who don’t do well in testing conditions still see their grades suffer.

However, Dr. Elisabeth Sandberg, a senior lecturer for PSY 1200 (General Psychology), says that the structure of large lecture classes actually prevents the variety of assessment methods that students prefer. Due to large class sizes, it’s impractical for professors to assign projects that might be more comprehensive assessments of student learning. In addition, introductory courses like PSY 1200, Gen Chem and Calc 1 are meant to introduce students to subject matter. Large lecture classes are meant to spark interest for students to dig deeper into a particular subject, but if students can’t understand introductory material enough to display it on an exam, students may have to reconsider taking classes in the area.

These are actually the skills that companies prefer. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities in a report summarizing two national surveys of business executives, “78 percent of executives and 81 percent of hiring managers find ePortfolios useful when evaluating recent graduates, versus 51 percent of executives and 48 percent of hiring managers who find college transcripts useful.” In fact, the report continues, graduates who held internships, apprenticeships, or other applied and project-based learning experiences have stronger advantages in the higher process. Among those surveyed, 93 percent of executives “say that they would be more likely to hire a recent graduate who has held an internship or apprenticeship with a company or organization.”

Most companies find resumes a lot more useful than grades in any college class; in other words, real world experience is far more valuable than how we might do on a given test. This is something that Vanderbilt does exceptionally well. Students have access to the Career Center with a wealth of information and numerous opportunities to network through clubs, world-renowned professors, career fairs and alumni.

So should the administration consider creating smaller class sizes in order to give professors (and students) more options on assessments? Companies obviously value the skills that students could gain from application based classes, so why do we continue to take exams?