The way we look at writing tests has got to change.
It is no secret that students hate timed essays. They put extreme pressure on us to perform our writing, and often do not give us the opportunity to write carefully thought out arguments or discuss topics in clarity.
When professors ask us to crank out an essay in less than 50 minutes, they are asking us to do three things: write fast, write well and write now. How can we possibly sum up everything we have learned over the semester? How can we brainstorm, create an argument and write out a perfect essay with no opportunity to proof read, let alone revise? Students walk away from their exams feeling queasy about the diarrhea they just sprayed onto their desks.
Much of the first-year writing program at Fresno State does not include timed writing exams. Rather, students work on semesterlong portfolios that help them to learn how to craft argument and analysis skills. It takes, at minimum, one semester to teach these writing skills to freshmen. How can we expect them to go right from semesterlong projects into timed essays, when they are being taught how to create innovative ideas over an entire course?
This type of portfolio work is a fantastic way to approach grading. Students will create the best content when they are given time and the opportunity to brainstorm, research, write and revise. Putting students on the clock and asking them to perform their writing skills without knowing the prompts in advance is cruel and unusual punishment and will result in a lot of bastardized writing.
Students should at least be given a selection of a few possible prompts before they have to take this exam, so they can be familiar with their research and come up with brainstorming before they walk into the classroom.
Students are asked to perform their writing when they take timed writing exams, and some people would defend this. They would say that students need to be able to perform on command what they have learned. While there is merit in this argument, most real-life settings give employees more than 50 minutes to come up with coherent content. What kind of real-world application does writing a timed essay give students?
You could say that students need to prepare for standardized exams like the GRE. Which is a fine argument. Except that the same problem with those forms of tests lies in assuming that students can create well constructed arguments while under a time limit. The problem does not lie within the student, it lies within the form of testing.
Students try to navigate this kind of writing culture by memorizing sentence order and making cookie cutter practice essays. Students are not learning how to think critically and organize their ideas, rather they are playing ad libs on standardized testing. Which is sad, because so much of grad school entrances rely on these forms of timed tests.
We should be trying to change these kinds of tests. Professors should be assigning students papers that are cumulative in advance. Give them the opportunity to write you things that you want to read, rather than the drivel that comes out of tired and frantic minds.
Timed tests are not conducive to critical thinking and innovation. They do not encourage brainstorming. They encourage incoherent trash that looks like spontaneous diarrhea on lined paper.