I, like many other students, had quite an unconventional semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of my classes were online. There were benefits, but also significant drawbacks--it ended up being much more stressful than I had anticipated. It felt like too many of my professors did not know how to teach in an online format, unfortunately at the expense of me and my peers. Taking exams remotely was an added-stressor. Would the people be blasting music in the apartment below me again? Grade-wise, this was my worst semester yet. There were certain things I could have done better, but everything is 20/20 in hindsight.
One class of mine, though, had open-book exams. I remember the relief I felt whenever I was reading the syllabus on the first day of class. Exams being open to class resources is something I consider invaluable. Instead of feeling pressured to memorize every detail that has a chance of showing up on the exam, I can take a deep breath and reassure myself that, "I'm not expected to have this all memorized." As the semester went on, it got me thinking. Why doesn't every class have a similar policy?
The way exams are set up can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress. Many students are more worried about the grade instead of actually learning the material. At the end of the day, our brain is not going to remember every topic we're taught in school in due time, yet we are still expected to master a subject in a few months time, if not less. Not to mention the fact that full-time college students are taking several classes, in each of which they've been given such a task.
There is rarely a situation in the real world where we're going to need to know everything about a topic just from the top of our head, either. We have Google, our coworkers, even our college notes to look back on in the event there's something we don't know. If college is supposed to prepare us for the workforce, why aren't exams treated like a real-life situation? Further, why is there not a greater emphasis on projects that are more closely related to the students' anticipated field of work? Projects and presentations are more similar to a real-world experience than an exam is. Critical thinking is one of the most important life skills, and memorizing what you think is going to be on the exam, taking the exam, and then forgetting all about it will not get you where you need to be.
Of course, I understand why exams exist, and they may still be the best course of action for foundational classes. However, they should still be open to the resources that would be available for students to use in the workplace later on. Currently, college is too focused on getting good grades instead of genuinely learning the material. This needs to change if we want to prevent burnout and promote success after college.