Is this going to be on the exam?

When a student asks me, “is this going to be on the test?” I feel a twinge of sadness. Sadness that we’ve put students in a place where they have to be so worried about grades. Sadness that students who ask this question are missing the point entirely. And so I join my fellow faculty and repeat the mantra: “focus on learning the material, not just studying to pass a test.”

Experimental Design

There’s a concept called “Experimental Design” that applies here. No, it’s not just for people who study the physical sciences. In fact, the best example can be seen by watching political elections. On the last presidential election night, the polls began reporting district results after counting as little as 5% of the votes!

No, they weren’t playing wishful thinking games. They weren’t tossing out votes to rig the election. They were employing Experimental Design: when you truly understand a system, you can determine its response to a new stimulus using surprisingly few measurements.

What does a college exam do?

First, the point of every class you take: to teach you a new mindset, and new big-picture that changes the way you approach the world. The goal isn’t to fill your head with trivia, or to teach you to apply these new concepts to a few specific systems or arenas.

A well-written exam is like a policitcal poll: measure 5% to determine the overall outcome. By asking the right questions, the exam can measure the degree to which you’ve mastered the big picture mindset that this course offers.

Ok, but is this this going to be on the test?

Yes. It will be on a test that matters someday. Maybe not the written exam that earns you a grade, but maybe next semester when this concept is the foundation of another question. Maybe 10 years from now when you’re in a meeting with a client who needs a response on their idea immediately.

Your job in college isn’t to get good grades on exams. It’s to learn new mindsets that enable you to add value to the world.

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