Three functions of exams

Independently on intentions,
an exam fulfills the following three functions:

1. determines what students will have learned.

This function is most important. Ultimately it shapes the society. Exams define the contents and quality of education and, ultimately, the future of the society.

For a specific exam, this function may be amplified by a value attached to the exam: the most influential are exams which play an important role in the life career (say, if the enrollment to a college depends on its result).

Students are smart. They tend to learn exactly what is needed at an exam. What is not needed, is not studied.

Often this most important function is not taken into account. I doubt if it is seriously taken into account on the national levels. Often it is not taken into account even on the level of a single program in a college.

It is not difficult to realize what would be consequences of a change in an exam. However, to this end at least the question should be posed. Otherwise, people just follow an established practice and take the luxury not to think about implications.

2. tests and certifies what knowledge and skills a student has really mastered.

An exam is expected to differentiate students, to assign grades to them.

3. teaches a student with an extreme efficiency.

In a stressful atmosphere of an exam, learning is most efficient. This is what keeps exams in student's memory. I remember in detail some of exams that I had 50 years ago.

Of course, if an exam consists of straightforward exercises in application of meaningless mnemonic rules, then there is nothing to remember. That exam does not teach anything valuable.

I heard about these three functions of exams long ago,
from my teacher Vladimir Abramovich Rokhlin.
He did not refer to anyone,
but just mentioned as a self-obvious common sense wisdom,
then added: only the second function is commonly anticipated.

The second function is of prime value from the viewpoint of a student.
Many people, including those responsible for educational systems,
never overgrow this level of understanding
and never notice the other two functions.