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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Reevaluating how we take assessments at UNC

DTH Photo Illustration. "In the professional world, people apply resources to problems. They rarely operate on pure memorization, even though knowing information by heart does offer some benefits," columnist Georgia Roda-Moorhead writes.

I currently have 16 tabs open on my computer browser. About half of them are Quizlets. Whenever I get bored with one set, I switch to another tab and “star” the new vocabulary I am not yet familiar with. 

My General Psychology Quizlet contains terms like “glial cells," “myelin sheath” and “cognitive dissonance.” The truth is, I have a very shallow understanding of these concepts.

If my professor asked me to diagram the “myelin sheath” in class, I would probably stare at her blankly until she answered the question for me to spare everyone. 

Fortunately, the exam is always multiple-choice, so all I have to do is memorize the definition. My strategy? I repeat each Quizlet card out loud until I can recite it verbatim in an eerily robotic voice.

Then, I take the assessment and proceed to forget all the information I had just studied.

I wish I could say my grades reflect genuine, deep comprehension. Most of the time, they only measure how many terms I could cram into my brain prior to the exam. That is, until the coffee high wears off and sleep deprivation fogs my memory.

It is long overdue that higher education fosters skills with real-world applications. By the time students graduate college, they should be able to effectively collaborate with others, analyze multifaceted problems and innovate solutions. Such a curriculum is far more practical than one in which students regurgitate content without understanding its significance.

In the professional world, people apply resources to problems. They rarely operate on pure memorization, even though knowing information by heart does offer some benefits.

Consider a financial consultant who solves managerial problems for their Fortune 500 client using a four-function calculator, a federal judge who interprets the Constitution without being able to crack open the actual book or a pharmacist who concocts medical cures with nothing but stored-up knowledge from an organic chemistry class.

Each of these situations is absurd, which is why school curriculums should reflect real-world situations. My solution? Allow students to take open-book tests.

Contrary to common belief, properly constructed open-book tests enhance students' understanding of concepts by improving their “higher-order thinking and problem-solving” abilities, according to a Washington Post report. This exam format helps students become more resourceful, as they apply carefully selected sources to the problem at hand.

Most importantly, however, studies find that the act of simply taking an open-note test can improve long-term retention in a process called “retrieval practice.”

According to the "Journal of Effective Teaching," open-book testing also helps remedy “the discontent associated with textbook purchase for courses.”

Too often, students buy outrageously pricey school materials they seldom use in class. 

This situation is very prevalent at UNC, where the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid estimates that books and supplies cost the average student $1,290. If students are going to expend thousands on textbooks, they ought to at least use these materials.

Finally, data shows that open-book tests help reduce performance anxiety, a much-needed change in the wake of the ongoing national mental health crisis. The "American College Health Association" reported in 2018 that nearly 63 percent of college students in the U.S. experienced crippling anxiety.

Not only must students — particularly first-years — adjust to the University’s rigorous academic demands, but also post-quarantine life. 

If open-book tests help alleviate anxiety among students and improve memory retention, then why aren’t more schools administering exams using this format? This is a question the University will hopefully grapple with in the coming years as higher education institutions continue to evolve. 


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