Years ago a wag sagely but feelingly remarked that life was just one exam after another; and at least twice a year a majority of undergraduates agree with him. The mid-year period is one of those times. Now many men are facing their first important college examinations, others are puzzling over the sort of questions the hitherto unknown professor is likely to ask and the sort of answers the even less known reader is likely to enjoy; meanwhile the Library is uncovering the thumbed and torn papers of years gone by.
At such a period President Lowell's discussion of examinations is of more than passing interest. At the outset he speaks of three types: the disciplinary, the informational, and "the potential," each with its own use, and its own value.
It is against the first, or disciplinary type, that "the repugnance of teachers is mainly directed." And he might well have added that of students. Admittedly this type is necessary. As long as colleges and universities are ordered as they are, the only way to assure the fulfilling of assignments is by occasional tests of this disciplinary sort. That is the aim of "hours," recitations and section papers. Indeed as one professor pointed out an additional hour examination may be a hardship now but later it will prove a blessing for just that much work will be done and require only a cursory review in January.
But of all types the disciplinary is most liable to misuse. Much has been said in recent years about humanizing colleges and humanizing administrative work and the same process should be applied to courses as well. For "humanization" in practice means little more than a greater reliance on the good faith of the student, and proportionately greater expectations from him. In elementary courses the coercive attitude serves as a bridge for the gap between school and college: but in more advanced work it tends to limit outside study.
Large assignments covered in detail by tests force every one to have some idea of the topics covered often from notes--the smaller assignments accompanied by recommended reading which can be used to advantage in a final, informational examination will cram less down the throats of the indifferent majority but at the same time will interest a few in the subject and perhaps provoke some individual work.
At the end of such a course come the informational questions, not to test mere faithfulness of work but the grasp of the subject and the accuracy of the knowledge obtained. For this purpose catch questions are of doubtful value. All is one to the scholar but odds and ends slip away too easily from men whose grasp of the subject may be perfectly satisfactory but whose memory is less tenacious of details.
But in the new "potential" examinations the real purpose of higher education comes to its own. The ability to judge values, to place facts in their proper relations, and to gain a homogeneous view of the field, these are the more elusive virtues which the tutorial system is supplying and the divisional examinations are requiring more and more. In them as the report states the student has a chance to show not that "he has been duly subjected to a process, but what, as a result of it, he has become."
To this change many of the older persuasion have gracefully submitted, but there is still a need for improvement. "Departmentals" take for granted the interest of the undergraduate in his field of concentration. The responsibility is and should be his own. Those men who "take advantage" of the greater freedom allowed by the new spirit are in the minority, the rest will make increasing good use of it as it is granted. "External agencies assist but the essential thing is self-education. . . .If the object is merely to do well in a course it is far less than if it is the mastery of a field of thought." As that attitude spreads there is ever more cause to be thankful for the "humanization" of colleges.