Why do students still have to memorise for exams?

Offbeat topic. Reading time: 2-3 min

Why do educators still expect students to memorise and regurgitate information in exams?

We’re at a period in time where information can be widely accessed, and most information can be found either online or offline.

Even in professional practice, we keep our reference books and online guideline databases close at hand—at our fingertips even, thanks to our mobile devices—for reference to confirm our judgement, do things based on evidence and minimise human error.

Given this, why are many exams based on the groundwork of testing memory?

Asking students to recall something does not help with their learning given that most students choose to use their short term memory for exams and forget everything immediately after, rather than committing information to their long-term memory (which admittedly takes much more effort due to the need for regular recall and review).

I understand that having everything committed to memory is important for fast decision making, and this could be a good reason for exams to test your memory on a topic.

However, I would argue that close-book examinations to test your memory of a subject is not the way forward. I am a proponent of long essay paper-style assessments and open book exams.

Rather than wasting time trying to memorise the knowledge delivered to you, writing a self-initiated research paper or using given information to complete an evaluation and analysis paper encourages and develops application and synthesis-based thinking. This requires understanding rather than raw memorisation and further develops important skills in our current era:

  • Proper identification of useful, relevant and reliable information and sources in a tsunami of information available
  • Reviewing different information sources and evaluating what should be the optimal action
  • Synthesis of your own knowledge given information you learned
  • Applying such knowledge to solve various problems

Through completing these tasks, students will naturally filter out what knowledge is important and relevant to them and via their acquired understanding of a topic, they will naturally remember information that comes up frequently (and is therefore information important for them to remember).

Students will also have something to take out of it, such as a piece of writing for reference by their future selves, evidence of how far they have come in terms of knowledge manipulation, and potentially new knowledge that can be shared with others, rather than a soon-useless marked exam paper or a grade that rapidly voided.

Testing via memory recall, however, is still the most effective way for students to learn via memorisation, or so evidence suggests.

Then what’s wrong with memory based tests and exams?
If our goal is to develop humans to be biological hard drives, void of any skills in data and information interpretation, idea generation and effective application of knowledge, then it’s the perfect method of education.


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