Life is full of tests. These test can take many forms, including blood, pregnancy, road, animal, aptitude and weapons. Today we will be focusing on written tests, specifically those used in the North American secondary and post-secondary education curriculum.

These tests take many forms, since each teacher has a unique style and some subjects require specific testing methods. A math test, for example, would likely have students solve equations, while an English test would steer toward essays and short paragraphs. Though tests may vary in design, they all have one thing in common: ambiguity. Before we unravel this obscurity, we should first define the nature and intent behind a test.

A test, in the form we are discussing, could be defined as a set of questions or problems given to a student in order to determine knowledge and aptitude. In addition, tests are most often expected to be completed by the individual during class, without the aid of electronics or books, by the end of the period. A test is usually given after a section of course material is completed, or at the end of the term, attempting to assess a student’s grasp on topics recently discussed in the class. Now that we know why we take tests in school and how they are generally dispensed, let’s find out how they are ambiguous.

Imagine you’ve just finished covering World War II in your history class and you are told that there will be a test the following week. The teacher informs you that the test will be on World War II and that it will have some long form questions. On the night before the day of the test, you diligently study your textbook and notes, attempting to cram your brain full of facts in preparation for the exam. When class begins you sit down at your desk, pencil firmly in hand, heart firmly in throat, while the tests are distributed. After receiving your copy and carefully reading the first question, your body swells with anxious heat as you realize that, for whatever reason, you skipped over this section of the textbook. Discouraged and perspiring, you flip the page, glancing at later questions. Panic and diarrhea set in as it becomes apparent that this test is asking for exactly the answers that you didn’t review. How could this happen? You thoroughly examined your notes, the teacher’s handouts, as well as key topics in the textbook, yet you are about to fail the test. The culprit is ambiguity.

When teachers notify their class about an upcoming test, they are deliberately vague about the content of the test. They tell you the chapter and general test structure, but they don’t tell you exactly what questions will be asked. The reason why teachers hold back and do not reveal the details of the test to their students is because of a hidden tension caused by a flawed testing system.

Tests are supposed to determine aptitude and knowledge, to find out if a student is absorbing information. There are two ways of going about such a task. The first is by, without warning, asking the student to answer questions about course material. The second is by alerting the student of an incoming test, allowing ample time for adequate preparation. Unfortunately, by announcing to the class that they will be tested, the teacher eliminates the test’s capacity to determine whether or not the student has absorbed information during the class. The test no longer measures knowledge and understanding, instead it measures a student’s ability to cram information into their brain the night prior to a test. If a student wished to display their grasp of course material, they should consider studying to be a form of cheating. Unfortunately, students are compelled by parental and administrative pressure, as well as personal satisfaction, to ceaselessly study for these ineffective examinations.

Teachers know about this tension, that is why they give hints about the test’s content. They abandon the first method of testing when they reveal the existence of the test to the class, yet they corrupt the second form when they refuse to disclose the test’s exact content. A test should either be unannounced, aimed at testing what the student has learned from the class, or entirely revealed so that the student is not left wondering whether they have studied the correct portions of the textbook.

There are two additional factors which influence the form of testing employed in schools. One is the fact that teachers know that by being vague about test content they can coax students to over prepare.  If they disclosed the exact test questions to the class, the students would merely read those portions of their notes and textbook, skipping over the untested portions. For some reason this is unacceptable, and the students must suffer. Teachers want students to study for questions that won’t be on the test, so they don’t reveal exactly what the questions will be. This is how we arrive at our desk, draped in the despair of impending failure.

The other factor is the refusal, by teachers, to accept that most of what a student learns through a course will be forgotten shortly afterward. Teachers, being former students themselves, surely know that little of what they learn in class is retained after the semester. Rather than attempting to infuse information into students by passionate instruction and lively metaphor, teachers abandon hope of passing on enduring knowledge, using tests as merely a vessel to assault young minds with a surplus of feckless facts.

Teachers should consider the aim and design of their testing. If they wish to know whether or not their students are learning during class, then give tests without notification. If they require their students to answer questions beyond what they have learned in class, then give sufficient notification and complete disclosure. Students should no longer be tormented by enigmatic examinations and obscure test tactics.