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Thursday, January 04, 2007

The University Exit Exam

The primary goal of a university education is to teach students how to think. This is not a cliché. It really is the objective that many Professors strive for.

There are several secondary objectives—these are not universal. One goal that is widely shared is scientific literacy. We want university students to graduate with a minimal level of understanding of the natural world. Another important goal is to teach students how to express themselves in writing. We also want students to take an active interest in the world around them and learn to apply their thinking skills to current controversies.

In our free time we sometimes amuse ourselves by designing an exit exam. This is a test that all university students must pass before we give them a degree. It would require them to sit down and write 10 essays on various topics. I like the idea that they can answer any five of the questions in the morning exam from 9-12, then take a 2 hour break where they can chat with their friends about the questions, and answer the remaining five questions during the afternoon exam from 2-5.

Would you pass this exam?

Students have to write short essay answers to 10 questions. In many cases, there's no right or wrong answer. Students will be evaluated on their logic and how well they write. If they're discussing a controversial issue, the grade will depend on how well they represent both sides.

There will be a different set of questions every year. Here's an example. Can you think of any other questions that you'd like to see on the exit exam?

  1. Describe and evaluate the main arguments for the existence of God(s).

  2. Explain, with diagrams, how eclipses of the sun occur.

  3. List ten books you have read outside of class in the past four years and tell why you liked, or didn't like, them.

  4. What is your favorite music? Why?

  5. What is the theory of evolution and why is it important?

  6. Are you for or against abortion?

  7. Is there a difference between law and justice?

  8. Is socialism better than capitalism?

  9. Explain earthquakes and volcanoes and how they relate to plate tectonics.

  10. Is there anything wrong with genetically modified food?


  1. Not only do I think I'd come out of that exam pretty well, I think I'd enjoy the experience.

    In my university years, it seemed that the professors who were less useful to me as an academic tended towards exams that tested volume of knowledge. The profs I really liked, though, the ones who really had a give-and-take going in their class, tended to give exams that were kind of fun. Yes, they tried to test whether you'd done the coursework (identify the quotes etc), but the essay questions were more designed to give the student an opportunity to really show off how much he or she had gotten from the course.

    I did really well in undergrad, but both my first A and my only A+ (in two different courses) were from a prof who admitted to hoping students actually enjoyed his final exams. If Dr Bishop were designing the exit exam, let me tell you, I'd take it and ace it.

    The two hours off in the middle would be fun too.

  2. My only quibble is that questions 6, 7, 8 and possibly 10 are yes/no questions.

    I'd like to see some off the wall type questions which have no real answers but encourage some heavy thought, like:

    Design a social structure for a colony of 10,000 humans on a planet beyond the reach of Earth. Contrast your system with some of those already existing on Earth. You may assume ecological limitations affecting your colony, but should explain their affect on the social structure you propose.

  3. Don't worry. A simple "yes" or "no" answer would get zero marks. By the time students are ready to graduate from university, they should be mature enough to know when to be serious and when to be a smart ass.

    Some of the questions are designed to test for that maturity.

    BTW, I forgot to mention that you can take the test as many times as you need to in order to pass. The only limitation is that you have to get a passing grade within seven years from the time you first enrol in university.

  4. Larry,

    I understood that the requirement would be a reasoned argument, but my objection to the yes/no nature of the questions was twofold:

    a) in the absence of any other guidance some people (smart alecks) would answer yes or no and then kick up a fuss with the examination board about being discriminated against etc. They would probably fail to get the result overturned but you know how much fuss this would all cause.

    b) a more significant issue (at least to me in the UK) is that the questions imply that the (fully reasoned) answer will support one of the two options. I am more used to seeing questions set out in the form of "discuss the relative merits of..." which seems to invite a more thoughtful answer.

    Perhaps it is just two countries separated by a common tongue. I believe that the USA values formal debate and rhetoric more than in the UK - does Canada?

    Finally, on an autobiographical note, when I sat my 'A' levels (i.e. the last exams before university, 40 years ago) my school expected us to also sit a 'General Paper' which was just such a wide ranging literature/history/politics set of questions. It wasn't necessary to pass it to go to university, although I did both.

  5. discoveredjoys says,

    a) in the absence of any other guidance some people (smart alecks) would answer yes or no and then kick up a fuss with the examination board about being discriminated against etc. They would probably fail to get the result overturned but you know how much fuss this would all cause.

    We tolerate some of that in the first two years of university but not in the last two years.

    University is not a game or a contest where semantic trickery will get you very far. The analogy I use is to imagine you are at a job interview and the interviewer asks you if you think you can contribute to the company. Answering "yes" with a smirk on your face isn't going to work.

  6. This reminds me of my Australian Prehistory exam in Grad School. John Mulvaney, the world's leading Australian Archaeologist (and leading archaeologist who is Australian) taught a course that virtually no one got, because he use a very non-American system. For instance, he provided us with a complete bibliography. No, not a reading list for the course. A complete bibliography of Australian Prehistory.

    "But what do we read?"

    "Well, what do you need to know?"

    "Right, what do we need to know ....?"

    And so on.

    Anyway, the exam was a list of phrases, about 20 or so of them. Such as:

    "Darling Lakes"


    "Megafaunal Extinction"


    Tasmanaians and Fish?

    and so on.

    Each of these phrases, to an expert in Australian prehistory, served as a pointer to a set of literature, a set of questions, a set of arguments, and so on. More than enough for an essay.

    The instructions for the exam:

    "Look at the list below. Write four or five essays. Three hours."

    I loved that exam. (and the course)

  7. Regarding number 6: "Are you for or against abortion?," I think you meant "are you against abortion or are you pro-choice?" I don't know if your wording is standard in Canada but I don't think it is politically correct in the States, although it might be, in which case nevermind.