Measuring and Grading: Studying for In-Class Exams, Especially Essays
Knowing a thing is different from doing something with knowledge. Both knowledge and applied knowledge are necessary to learning, but because of their differences, they must be measured in different ways. "Why measure them at all?," you may ask. Few people like to be tested. However, measurement before, during, and after teaching is the only way to discover whether anything has been learned.
Measurement differs from grading, though it is necessary to grading. Many teachers would rather just teach and measure without grades, but few students can tolerate the uncertainty this produces. They become addicted to grades by the time they get to college and cannot stand to work without them. More importantly, a college degree and G.P.A. can be a "credential" or documentation of quality which can affect admission to graduate school and hiring decisions, especially Junior or Senior year grades in one's major. If we must grade and be graded, let's get good at it.
To improve grades, without cheating, the only strategy that works is to figure out and cooperate with teachers' measurement strategies. Measurement can involve no more than simply asking questions and observing the answers' accuracy, volume, and ingenuity. Your teachers' oral comments in class and conference, and written comments on papers and exams, already have measured the progress you make and the problems you have left to solve. Use these measurements to predict the construction of the exam that will grade you.
Grading requires comparison of your measurements, either with some known absolute standard or to others' answers to the same questions. The former is an "absolute" grade, often necessary for certification to practice medicine, law, accounting, or teaching. The latter is a "relative" grade, and it is used when absolute standards cannot easily be determined, or when there are many ways to do things and many correct answers, as in the performance of an art. Reading and writing require both types of grading.
The rest of the grade reflects the relative degree to which your understanding of what you read and hear enables you to do things with it. When you can explain or define or analyze something you remember, you demonstrate "understanding" of it. When you can do things with what you remember, you can apply it, and demonstrates your mastery of its use. The Greeks called knowing "gnosis" and doing "praxis." Knowing without doing is empty knowledge. Always press on from remembering to understanding to doing.
Additionally, the essay exam grade also reflects the artfulness of your writing, itself: the coherence and clarity of your sentences, your ability to summarize quickly your main points and to explain them in a logical sequence of paragraphs, your illustration of your explanation with examples or short quotations from your reading, and your ability to think beyond the mere limits of remembering to produce new ideas by applying what you read to something relevant to the course.
For each course in which you take an essay exam, you must prepare for both kinds of grading. The obvious preparation, that few freshmen need to be taught, involves memorization of the most important facts and principles you read or heard in class. Selecting what is "most important" involves watching for typographic cues that signal importance:
boldface or underscored passages;
chapter and section titles;
repeated phrases either in written or spoken explanations;
points emphasized in writing on the board or PowerPoint presentations.
Wise students will remember the theses of all assigned readings (e.g., a book chapter or article) by searching where academic writers usually put them, at the ends of introductions, and in conclusions. Wiser students will briefly outline the premises supporting the theses, and test their logic and consequences. The wisest realize that longer readings have many theses and donít stop at just one. Remembering a logical chain of inter-connected theses is one of the ways students demonstrate mastery of a major field of study.
The less obvious preparation for essay exams, which few freshmen understand, involves understanding how an exam is constructed and why its questions are worded as they are. To do that, you must think like the teacher, pre-write your own exam questions, and sketch answers to them.