Thursday, September 02, 2010

Harvard courses: final exams abolished

Breaking: a new oil rig has just exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Wow. It may be a time to think about less "mainstream" explanations of the events, too. I just listened to a lecture about an imminent Iran's war against all the Sunnis. ;-)

Willie Soon has kindly brought my attention to an eye-popping change at a major former workplace of mine:
Bye-bye, blue books? (Harvard Magazine, Summer 2010)

Harvard wimps out on testing (Chester Finn Jr and Mickey Muldoon, National Review, July 2010)

Final exams are so 20th-century (Jonathan Zimmerman, Christian Science Monitor, August 2010)

No more final exams at Harvard: is your school next? (Edudemic, July 2010)

Harvard is right: let's scrap final exams (Newser, August 2010)
The "default" option for a course will be to organize no final exam. If an instructor wants a final exam, he or (less likely) she will have to beg at the Registrar Office to get an exception; that's a reversal of the usual policy. Besides being speechless, I can only say: Wow.

In every course, the final exam is (or was) a source of an unusually high and exceptionally concentrated anxiety for the students - especially the weaker ones and those who are surrounded by high expectations - and a source of some more usual work for the instructor and the T.A. It's clear why someone would like to get rid of the exam. But does the new policy help the university's mission?

My answer is a clear No.

It is useful to check the would-be arguments from Jonathan Zimmerman, a Harvard historian who defended the new policy in the Christian Science Monitor (see the links above). His first package of arguments is the following paragraph:
I never learned much from them, I told her. The majority of my exams required me to regurgitate, not to think. And when the tests were over, I promptly forgot most of what I had memorized.
I am sorry but the reason why the majority of exams in history and other (at least previously) serious social sciences require students to regurgitate is that history and other social sciences are mainly about regurgitation. One cannot "creatively" invent his own new history. History is whatever it is. Whether you like it or not, a good historian is primarily the historian who knows a lot. He doesn't have to know how to compute path integrals or sing too well but he needs to know lots of facts.

Starting from the very title, Zimmerman spits at the 20th century but he doesn't appreciate the fact that the proposed 21st century - as his soulmates started to remodel it - is, relatively to the 20th century, a pile of stinky postmodern garbage.

In fact, I think that the very statement that the "knowledge of the facts" is the primary thing that distinguishes a good history student from a bad one is something that Zimmerman et al. would "disagree with". They prefer "creative interpretations" of the history - all these disgusting methods how to "frame" the facts to fit a particular ideology (namely the ideology of radical, leftist, politically correct whiners).

And some of them may prefer a smile from the student (or something even more intimate).

Well, that's not what I consider a good history. And even if there were social sciences that require the student or the specialist to "think" much more than to "memorize", a good instructor would simply include these things into the final exam, too - much like these things are inevitably included in physics exams. If he did not, it would be his mistake, not a mistake of the final exams per se.

Moreover, the comment that the "final exams lead the student to promptly forget everything" is just upside down. The final exams are exactly one of the tools to prevent the students from forgetting things promptly. The partial tests and homework allows the student to master a small piece of the material for a very short time and to abruptly forget everything - and to fail to create any links with the other insights - and to fail to appraise their relative importance.

But exactly because there is (or was) a final exam, the student knows (or knew) that this strategy is (or was) no good. He or she would have to know all the things simultaneously during the final exam - at least their key part. So it's a damn good idea not to forget the things. The final exam is what actually "connects the dots" in a course and leads the student to see the big picture, including the proper weights.

Of course, one may still ultimately forget everything, after any sequence of tests. But it's hard to change this law of Nature - the existence of forgetting. ;-)

Just like Finn and Muldoon wrote, "Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience." Zimmerman's reply is cute:
But the critics have it exactly backwards. Final examinations reflect an antiquated and largely discredited theory of learning, which equates knowledge with factual recall. By discouraging exams, then, Harvard is hardly forsaking academic rigor. Instead, it’s clearing the way for a more engaging, challenging, and truly educative college experience.
This sounds as a joke - a parody of a commercial - but I am sure that Zimmerman is serious. So it's a "discredited theory" if one thinks that "knowledge" is equated with "factual recall". Even leftist encyclopedias still have to invent a definition of knowledge that could exist without factual recall. Knowledge really is factual recall.

Now, the facts may be either largely separated pieces of information, connected at most with their nearest neighbors - like those in history - or a tightly interconnected network of insights that follow many universal principles and patterns and that can often be determined by many (not only calculational) methods - like those in physics. But they're still facts and their knowledge can be tested on the final exams.

Clearly, if "facts" in the most general sense - something that can be more or less rigorously tested on the final exams - are eliminated from the education as a "discredited theory", it's pretty much a tautology that the education actually doesn't teach anything that has any objective value.

Of course, instead of "those facts discredited since the 21st century", the universities may also "educate" the students by brainwashing them with a simple ideology. The new goal of "education" may be to lead the student to reinterpret everything in terms of discrimination or catastrophes allegedly caused by our existence. But I would prefer to treat all the people who promote this kind of "education" in the same way as James Lee was treated in Maryland. This atrocious stuff simply has no room in places that are called "universities".

The education "without facts" may also be "challenging" - but the challenges have nothing to do with facts so the people who succeed in these "challenges" are not those who can actually deal with the facts too well. The new education may also be "engaging" but not in the scholarly sense.

Zimmerman also offers a particular example from his field:
To see why, consider an example from my own field: American history. Imagine a test that instructs students to identify and describe five of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. Then imagine a take-home essay assignment, asking the students to explain what – if anything – our present-day leaders should borrow, apply, or adapt from Roosevelt’s policies.
The first test is about history; the second homework is about pure bullshitting. Moreover, this second task - one that Zimmerman prefers - can't have too sensible an answer. Most of the New Deal reforms were counterproductive. Only some of them could have been justified by the unusual economic problems of the early 1930s - that we really can't compare with the present era - and they helped. But they wouldn't help today. Nevertheless, many of the policies remain valid as of today - which is mostly bad. So there's no reason to "borrow" Roosevelt's policies. Their spirit is here with us (or with the contemporary America).

The most sensible students would essentially answer that it would be a tragedy for these policies to be re-enacted again. Some of them could elaborate and explain why. But that's exactly the type of correct answer that Mr Zimmerman wouldn't grade too highly - for purely ideological reasons.

The very question he asked makes it clear that he wants the student to defend as much regulation of the society as possible. The very question makes it self-evident that he wants the amount of regulation of the society to jump as much as it did during the Great Depression. Mr Zimmerman should be deeply ashamed - but if he's allowed to grade students for sharing his rudimentary misunderstandings of economics and the reasons behind the progress of the society, it's clear that something is profoundly screwed about his discipline, at least as implemented at Harvard.

Zimmerman defends the ideologically driven exercise over the conventional exam by the following slogan:
Fact + opinion = real knowledge
However, the education without the final exams is not "opinions plus facts" but rather "opinions minus facts". And that's a very poor approximation for knowledge. Plato has defined knowledge as "justified true belief" and I guess that the reader will understand why it is a pretty wise definition. Clearly, Zimmerman prefers to drop both "justified" and "true". Opinions may replace facts whenever it suits him and his agenda - and it's the agenda that should decide about the grades rather than the facts.

Zimmerman even defends his policy of distributing the essay questions 1-2 weeks beforehand. He knows that sensible people would ask him: Why don't you distribute the answers as well? So he says that he wants their answers, not his answer.

That surely sounds politically correct except that:

1) the answers don't have to be their answers; they can find, collect, or fabricate the answers in many other ways if they have the time and room to do so;

2) if there is no quasi-objective way for the instructor to decide which answer is right and which answer is wrong, then it means that the grades can't be objectively justified. It follows that the expertise in the field whose practitioners have been selected in this way (and similar ways at other levels) is fictitious, too. It's pretty unreasonable for such a historian to think that his knowledge of the New Deal is greater than ours.

Finally, Zimmerman criticizes the opinion that "the more we teach, the more they learn". Of course, I agree that less is sometimes (but not always) more. But even if it turns out that it is better to teach less rather than more, so that the students get actively familiar with the smaller amount of material, such a familiarity still has to be tested by objective tests.


The abolishing of the final exams is just another symptom of the third-class intellectual drift's takeover of Harvard University.

And that's the memo.


  1. Harvard leadership has made a mess of the institutions finances, much as Harvard educated leaders have trashed the US's economy and international position. It is hard not to agree that some radical change in the Harvard educational process is appropriate. The real question is whether this is sufficiently far reaching.
    Here the answer is clearly negative. Just eliminating exams changes nothing, except to remove one of the few fairly objective measures of performance available.

  2. Einstein said to never commit to memory that which can be easily gleaned from a textbook. I have often consulted my ancient physics textbook, and the method I crammed in for tests way back when pops back into my mind. I believe that the cramming, and subsequent long term storage are common correlates.

    Remember Einstein was differentiating knowledge from wisdom.

    Here is my own, very important wisdom I wish to impart to the already wise: One can never have less than not enough, or more than too much. This is an incontrovertible law of the Universe.

  3. Abraham Lincoln once said that, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds. . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting pea” That thought isn't limited to one aspect of life alone. Through it all, we have each other to help ourselves. That is "true connection." :)