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Open Access Exams

Interesting tidbit of news with possibly large implications.

BBC Radio contacted me last night asking for my comment on the news that Denmark is allowing top students to take university entrance exams with Internet access. Apparently, the government argues that facts and figures are culled from the Net anyway, not memorized, and the real point of exams is to test reasoning.

Certainly, this experiment isn’t surprising in an age when memory is a little-valued tool. As Plato predicted long ago, writing will spell the death of memorization. Oral cultures live and die by the strength of memory, but the written – then printed, and finally digital – Word made memory superfluous. We can look something up in the portable, accessible info-stores at hand.

Should we miss memory? It wasn’t all that long ago that schooling was still built on a bedrock of memorization, and that texts were known so deeply that they arguably became a part of the reader. We’ve moved away from an oral culture more recently than we might imagine.

I don’t think we should overly worship memory  – the committing to heart of epic poetry by schoolchildren etc. I’m not nostalgic for the day when schoolwork meant memorization, to the detriment of critical thinking. Still, to increasingly depend on a machine to do your thinking, computing and remembering risks, in my view, diminishing, not extending, our capabilities.

A second drawback to Net access during exams is that it’s likely to undercut any test of reasoning through sheer distractability. Even a brief visit to the boundaryless Net too often becomes an extended series of digressions, a journey conducive to “power-bouncing” across a sea of data. The temporal lipping back and forth between Net and exam further could interrupt the analytical thinking that we hope takes place during an exam.

  The argument that kids already multitask their way through their studies holds little merit for me. We need more deep focus and analysis not less, if we are to raise thinking beings in a complex age.



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  1. Nov 5, 20093:26 am

    As a father of 2 a few years I became increasingly aware of the practice of schools allowing not only the use of the Net but also calculators for solving problems in school.

    I explained to my teenager – who was once preparing for an exam – that the best method for learning especially when preparing for exams to hand-write or hand copy notes and any relevant information. The process of hand writing – not typing- a slows you down forcing you to focus on the information allowing the mind to absorb its details better.

    An undistracted focus individual living in today’s society is like one sitting the eye of the hurricane – though the world around experiences chaos it is the focused individual that will find peace in the midst of it all.

  2. Nov 9, 200911:39 pm


    A little off topic vis a vis this particular blog topic but in line with your ideas, I imagine, are these studies regarding medical errors. Perhaps you have already discussed this elsewhere…


  3. Nov 10, 20098:10 am

    Hi – Medical errors due to interruptions are really on-topic!I think your points are important, especially given the recent discussions on distracted driving. Driving isn’t the only sphere of life that’s life-threatening due to distraction, I guess. Time for a renaissance of attention. Thanks for the post!

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