(Image credit: miss_lolita)
The problem is, when I program, I spend at least a quarter of my time looking up functions, finding solutions to problems I’m having, and just generally muddling about. My code virtually never works the first time I run through it, and I spend another half of my time trouble shooting and finding errors in my code, some of which are dead stupid. The final quarter of my time is spent on inspiration and actually writing down the code I’m producing, as well as checking that it works. Some of the projects I work on take hundreds of hours, many of which are spent when I should be sleeping.
I’d fail that test because I don’t have enough of the programming knowledge in my head to be able to regurgitate it as needed. I might be able to rough out solutions to algorithmic problems, but I’d never produce a masterpiece as part of my exam, and I certainly would have to look up many functions and ideas to be able to finish any program.
As it happens, I do well enough on my programming to make money on the side. I actually have made many thousands of dollars over the past few years doing small programming jobs (although less recently). Why? I solve the problems people need fixing. I’m tenacious. I don’t stop when my code doesn’t work, I forge on and find a solution. I know how to find the pieces of information I need to fit into the code puzzle I’m solving.
When I think about my success in programming, and how I couldn’t easily represent my knowledge in an exam, I wonder how useful exams (particularly timed closed book exams) are for finding out about what people know. How many of us have things we "know" but for which we often have to look up additional information? A chef has a recipe book, a mechanic has a car manual, and a chemist has a periodic table of the elements (as well as countless reference books). Everyone who works professionally has some resource they access to remind them of things they know, and to fill in the gaps in what they don’t know.
Yes, there is specific information related to programming which I know without having to look it up, but if that was all that I knew, I wouldn’t be able to successfully create anything but the simplest of programs. I’d be completely unsuccessful as a programmer based on the sum of the knowledge currently locked in my head.
We must find ways to assess what students "know" how to do which represent the actual conditions of the life they will enter. While there are a small number of times in our lives where we will have to do something without access to information outside of our head, the vast majority of the time we will be able to fill in the gaps in our knowledge whenever we need.
Should we assess students on what they can memorize? Or should we assess them on what information they can access?
Richard Kassissieh says:
Fortunately, the computer science assessments I have seen assign students a programming problem to solve and then evaluate the results, consistent with the skills that you describe.
June 5, 2011 — 11:22 am
David Wees says:
What access to resources do those students have while doing their assessments? Can they use any reference source they want?
June 5, 2011 — 11:54 am
I find that when professors allow one sheet of notes, I study more effectively. This is because I have to organize my knowledge so it fits onto two sides of paper, I have to understand it well enough that I understand how to use each equation, and writing it down again helps cement my knowledge and recall.
June 5, 2011 — 6:11 pm
For physics classes I always give my students the equations on any exam since I do not feel it is about memorizing the equations but applying them to situations. When working, I always needed to look up equations I did not regularly use.
Maybe I will try for algebra class having the kids fill in a card they can bring to the exam with them. I used to be able to do this for my physics classes in university and while making the sheet was actively studying so rarely needed to look at it during the exam.
June 5, 2011 — 7:00 pm
As a student, this is a topic that I have recently been asking myself. Being expected to relay information on an exam from strict memorization is not really learning. When I go into class for an exam I have usually been up half the night memorizing facts from my study guide. The point that you make on how people in the professional world have different tools that they use to help them remember different pieces of information is something that should be considered in education. In the past when I have been allowed to use an index card or study sheet on my exam I tend to do much better. Not because I have the information right in front of me but because I have sat down to make that study sheet and there are key words that help me recall certain information that may be on the exam.
There is no occupation that I can think of where we would not be allowed to use different sources in order to do our jobs to best of our abilities, or as you put it, “fill in the gaps”. This should be no different in education. I understand why educators would not allow source information to be used on all exams all the time, but it should be considered. For example, as Dvora stated, she puts the physics equations on her exams. I’m sure this helps the students tremendously. They can focus on learning the information instead of memorizing equations.
June 7, 2011 — 2:01 pm