Transactive Memory1 and Educational Testing

The most common criterion for learning in our educational system is whether you can remember certain information. Sometimes recognition memory is tested, as in true false or multiple choice tests. At other times recall memory is tested, as in fill in the blank or essay tests. These tests are carried up the educational hierarchy all the way to comprehensive written tests for Ph.D. qualifying exams. Open book exams are the exception and not the rule. And the use of crib notes can get a student into serious trouble.

Educators have tended to regard the proliferation of transactive memory (the internet, for example) as a threat to education. They fret about students plagiarizing text from the internet and their inability to recognize or identify this plagiarism. This blog posting will argue that the abundance and availability of transactive memory should be regarded as an opportunity rather than a threat.

When I taught introductory or lower level courses in college, I placed heavy reliance on multiple choice tests. The main considerations here were time and resources. Given an abundance of students and no teaching assistants, practical considerations dictate multiple choice tests. When I needed to construct make up tests for students who had missed scheduled tests for legitimate reasons, I made up essay tests. It is not practical to construct multiple choice tests for one or several students. Usually I was appalled when I graded these tests. Part of the problem often was poor composition skills, but the conclusion I drew was that the students had but the flimsiest grasp of the material. So students seemed to be learning much less than what I had inferred from their multiple choice test performance.

Now consider this new type of test in today’s world of ubiquitous transactive memory. Students would arrive at the exam with their laptops and would be given full internet interactivity. There would be no restriction on any materials they had prepared for the exam. They would be given a problem, perhaps more than one. And it is possible that these questions would be taken from a set of potential exam questions that the students had been given in advance. They would be required to answer the problem or problems to the best of their ability using all the resources at hand. The premise underlying this type of test is that the critical test of knowledge is how well you can use it rather than whether you can recall it by rote. Using the knowledge of others is not a problem as long as credit is given. Failure to provide sources would be heavily penalized.

What do you think of this new type of test for the 21st Century?

1Transactive memory, as presented in previous blog postings, is memory external to our personal selves. So this is memory resident in our fellow humans and in the vast expanses of technology, for example libraries and the internet.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “Transactive Memory1 and Educational Testing”

  1. Memory Forums Says:

    Do you support the idea of these tests that only ask you to regurgitate information? I think our class room leaders don’t think for themselves, but best understand the ways to memorize a given topic and that’s dangerous. I’d rather have someone who understands 70% of the concept than someone who memorized 100% for a test but doesn’t understand how it works…

    • healthymemory Says:

      I believe that the basic point of this post was to move beyond what you call “regurgitation of information” to testing that requires the effective use of information.

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