Exam Prep I: "Do I have to know this...?"

At this time of year, students are starting to prep for exams, which is good. How do I know students are prepping? By The Question I get asked. The Question is: "Do I have to know this...?" This is not a stupid question. I'd love to say that there are no stupid questions, but one like "Is this going to be on the exam?" is close. Er, why don't I just give you a copy of the exam so you can see what's on it?

Sorry, sorry. Sometimes I get snarky when that one comes up. Don't take offence at my snarkiness. It's just that I'm tired of answering certain questions over and over. That's why I've decided to write a post about it--so I don't have to answer it over and over. I hope.

And don't think that I'm writing this post because you were the one who asked me The Question. Lots of people have asked me The Question over the years. And lots have asked it already this term. In fact, I planned on writing about The Question this week a long time ago. So get over it.

I know what's happening when The Question starts to form in a student's mind. They're reading the textbook and increasingly getting overwhelmed by all the names and dates in the first chapter. There so much stuff--most of it not even mentioned in lectures. "Gosh, I'm getting tired. It's going to take me a long time and a lot of effort to commit all of this information to memory, and to understand all the different names for things. Hmm, maybe I'd be wasting my time learning about all of this. I better check with the instructor and see." Aaaand The Question is born, and gets sent off through the Intertubes to me, landing in my inbox. Ping!

Can you see my frustration with The Question? There are a couple of things. First: No, there will not be exam questions on everything--that's impossible. I cannot test every single concept presented in the textbook and in lectures. The test would be thousands of questions long. The best I can do is take a random sample of those questions. If you've learned everything in the course so far, it shouldn't matter what content the questions address. On the other hand, if you've been a bit...intellectually lazy and skipped over things that were long, complicated, or hard, there will be gaps in your knowledge. Exams should be designed to reveal those gaps, in order to differentiate among students' learning.

Second, the little vignettes and stories at the start of every chapter will not be on the exam. But that doesn't mean you should ignore them. Why did the textbook author spend time writing them? To help you understand the context and reason for the chapter? To illustrate an important concept? So, do you need to know that specific story or not? Probably not. But by reading it, you'll better understand the concept it's trying to teach you.

Third, names and dates. Yes, I'm deliberately wasting your time, sir. Or, wait. Am I? Is an important part of learning about psychology to know the contributions made by philosophers, scientists, and psychologists? To know their names? And to know when in history those contributions were made? If you want to become a psychologist, is all of that important? In the science biz, the way that we refer to important research is not by where it was done (although the media love to report the institution for some reason), but by who did it, and when. One psychologist will sling around names like "Smith, Shoben, and Rips", "Treisman and Gelade", and "Ramachandran and Hubbard, '07" and another psychologist will know instantly what the other is talking about. But then, psychologists know all about psychology and you don't. Not yet. You get to know a lot about psychology by reading and remembering it, not by skipping over a bunch of it. On the other hand, from a pedagogical standpoint, is there value in evaluating students on their ability to rote memorize what seems like a meaningless string of names and numbers?

So, in answer to The Question, "Do I have to know this...?"

No. No, you don't.

You also don't have to pass the course, or get an A. Students who do, will know...

Why aren't you studying?


Anastasia said...

I've always taken "there are no stupid questions" as a personal challenge.

Find It