Should they Know it in 20 Years?

A couple of weeks ago, I started a blog post recalling a course that I once took as part of my Masters degree. The 1992 course was about developing applications using dBase (look it up). The buzz in tech circles at the time was about Gopher, Veronica, FTP, and something brand new called the World Wide Web. The course was mostly programming – and I loved it. I suspect that many of my classmates (mostly educators in the same degree program) were not so thrilled nor the least bit interested in programming.

The gist of this story concerns the final exam.  A couple of weeks before the end of the semester, I sent an email to the professor suggesting that real programmers, as they worked, almost certainly did not rely on memory alone. They had reference books open on their desks so that they could look up various obscure coding options and syntax that might help them solve problems peculiar to the task at hand.

“Shouldn’t we be tested the same way, with the book open on our desks?”

He bought it, announcing at our next class meeting that, “Thanks to Mr. Warlick’s suggestion,” the exam would be open book. “Cheers!” He added that he was changing the exam appropriately. “Silence.” I suspect that some of my classmates felt more confidence with the memory of the solutions to problems they had studied.

I got my “A.”  But it occurs to me now that the difference between the exam given and the one intended, was that we ended out not being tested on what we knew – that is to say, just what we’d been taught.  Instead, it tested us on what we could do with what we’d learned.

I initially intended for this story to promote open book or open content learning. But I want to come at this from a different angle, owing partly to several pre-Educon blog articles I’ve recently read.  You see, if I were to take the originally planned dBase test today, under the originally intended conditions (memory only test), then I would fail it miserably — and I would probably be none-the-worse for the knowledge I’d lost.

However, if I were to sit down and take the test the professor actually administered, with appropriate reference materials available to me, I would probably do respectably well — even 20 years later.

My point is this. What should we, as educators, really care about? Is it just what students can recall at the end of the year or the course? or is it what they can do and whom they will be 20 years later?

If it’s the long haul that we are about, then I wonder, as we write our final exams for the students in our class – or end-of-year state tests, shouldn’t we be willing to ask ourselves, “Can I reasonably expect these children to be able to pass this test 20 years from now?”

If the honest answer is, “No!” then we’re just playing a game.


…Posted using BlogsyApp from my iPad

20 thoughts on “Should they Know it in 20 Years?”

  1. Great post David! I think we need to quit playing games and get down to the serious (and fun) work of learning and engaging with big important ideas and problems. The world is a fascinating place, and it’s definitely open-book (and open internet). Here’s something to ponder — should students be allowed to collaborate on exams?

  2. Mr. Warlick,
    My name is Kellen Bramlett. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. As I am studying to be a future teacher, I completely agree with your post. I want to be teacher that educates my students on how to the job or career for which they are studying to be given certain resources, rather than asking them to memorize a few facts just to pass my class. I believe that if my students could not come back 20 years later and pass my test, then I have failed as a teacher.
    I will summarizing my comments at a later date.
    Please follow me at

  3. The open book exam is why I struggled with my Fourier Analysis class in grad school, and that’s not a criticism. Those exams did exactly what they were designed to do – test an engineer’s ability to apply what was learned to a new and unfamiliar problem. I just wasn’t smart enough to understand the material while juggling my research (in the Earth Sciences, not engineering) and other courses.

    I can see this exam style working with “objective” subjects that have well-defined answers like programming, but can this work with material from more subjective courses like English?

    1. @bryan, I teach mainly subjective subjects and I almost always allow students to have novels, dictionaries and whatever other tools could prove useful. As far as English and language arts classes are concerned, I think it’s even easier to prepare an open-book test because there is rarely a single possible answer.

      What I try to stress to students before an open book exam is time management skills. They need to realize that open book doesn’t mean that they don’t need to study. They need to know the resources well and know what to look for and how to use the tools quickly so they don’t run out of time.

  4. Years ago, when I was still a full-time English teacher, I used to give a one question final exam: “What is literature and why does it matter?” That always struck me as the most important thing I could try to instill.Some past students have told me they do remember it many years later.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with your approach. I ask you, however, what if the class is a precursor to a process class (say elementary mathematics)? Do the children keep working arithmetic with the tools (counters and manipulatives) for the entire year or does one make the honest attempt to wean students from dependency or external sources to intrinsic knowledge.

    I think blanket statements are dangerous. My sixth graders were floored when I allowed them to use their novels when answering a comprehension test at the end of the novel. Was it the best approach? I don’t know. Was it a fair approach? Yes, as we took a long time to read the story. The largest reward was watching many students thumb through their books READING and using memory recall skills to know where in the story he or she should find the answer. All students passed. But more importantly, all students enjoyed reading the book.

    In a Math class, however, I need to know whether or not a student has mastered the process of dividing decimals without my help. If by and large the class is not successful, I know I need to go back and reach into my bag and find a more effective manner to teach the subject.

    That’s what this is all about anyway, isn’t it? Good solid teaching.

    1. @Alexis, I actually thought pretty hard about this very question when I wrote the article. My conclusion was that most instances of needing assurance of mastery for the sake of the next process are usually formative style tests, given within a school year. This is the reason why I specified “final exams” and “end-of-year” state tests.

      Still, you make a great point about blanket statements, and that is a constant struggle for bloggers of my ilk. The purpose of such statements is to provoke people/educators to think differently. It’s one of the qualities of being a teacher, that we are often isolated from alternative view points.

      I have to assume that professionals will recognize the exceptions to what I write, respond appropriately, and understand the statement for its intent — a provocation 😉

  6. Great Post!

    I completely agree with you that we need to think about what we truly want students to take away from our classes. It is not about the information, but about how they access it and what they can do with it. Twenty-first Century Skills echo this ideal, but you are right in saying that our assessments do not. I think some people are afraid to engage in these types of assessments because they don’t feel confident in their own skills as an assessor or because a multiple choice test is just “easy” to grade. As the educational world shifts from the idea of grades to mastery of skills, I’m hoping more people will understand the value of application rather than regurgitation.

  7. David,

    It is definitely worth pondering. I was recently having similar reflections and ended up having a final novel exam open book / open note. Ever since reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer I try to make my students tasks true to life. When I discuss a book with people I have access to the book. I cannot come up with deep thoughts, even with the book open, if I have not actually read the text. The access to the book simply allows me to add the depth of detail to my thoughts. Again, these are life skills that they will be able to use 20 years down the line, as opposed to a minor detail in a particular book.

  8. Unfortunately I don’t think we can teach experience, and certainly not 20 years worth. Hopefully the training we give our students provides the foundation on which their own experiences can flourish and find roots. (Which may be, after all, your point!).

    1. @Aaron, Yes! But many know that I do not like the word training. I thing that our job, by and large, is to help our students to develop the habits of a learning lifestyle where valuable experiences flourish.

  9. My final exam in American history is in fact based on the U.S. Citizenship test, and I would expect that students would be able to prove they knew what citizens should know. The takeaway, though, is that there’s a limited number of potential questions on the examination, and students know well in advance what is on the test. So there’s time to practice and implant it deeply in memory — which is where I want it to be.

    For a world history test, though, I like the idea of giving an open book test, and asking students to define the course of a civilization using examples from 4 world civilizations; or explain what a civilization is, using examples from several civilized societies. That might work very well indeed.

    1. @Andrew B. Watt,

      I believe that open book test gives students the chance to add more details to their writing. I think just memorizing everything is overload and not giving the students a chance to grasp all material, since they are concentrating on memorizing so much.

      1. @Jackie,

        That may be true… I also work on teaching my students memory techniques and tricks, such as the Palace of Memory, so that they have tools and resources for memorizing materials, not just for now, but for the future.

        I agree that simply memorizing facts and figures is silly, and overload. On the other hand, people used to be able to memorize all of the Iliad and Odyssey, or other long epic poems, using techniques like these, and it would be silly not to teach memory techniques as part of the nature of any class.

  10. I’m all for focusing MUCH more of our instructional time on the 40 year stuff, but the reality is that as teachers become more and more accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests, to the point that their jobs will depend largely on those test results, teachers must spend more and more time preparing students for those tests. That requires them to focus on the content of those tests, much of which is 40 day knowledge, and to provide students with similar testing experiences (NOT open book).

    I believe most teachers would love to have more say in what it is their students are learning in their classrooms, but the reality is that more and more of what is required does not fit in with the knowledge and skills we want our students to have for a lifetime. And, that is sad. But, until standardized tests begin to look like the summative assessments that you and others have described, much of our day will be focused on 40 day knowledge and rote testing.

    And, I suspect the pendulum will continue to swing in that way for some time since it seems popular for politicians to politicize teaching and learning. 🙁

  11. This is the most refreshing blog I have read in a long time. Interestingly enough, I recently read part of a book by Douglas Reeves (2012) that spoke about education twenty years from now. The book said that 20 years from now, the ineffective practices that most teachers practice will continue to be practiced even though we realize how ineffective they are. For example, I debated on closed-notes tests versus open-notes tests. I conducted an experiment over two years, which I will explain in the following paragraphs.

    I have two thoughts on test-taking or test-giving. My first year of teaching, I made students take closed notes tests. They performed well on them for the most part, but honestly, all they were doing was reciting information that I had told them. It is always impressive when students can recite facts, because it tells us that they have “learned” something, but have they actually learned the concepts that we want them to, or just vocabulary and how to memorize?

    My second year of teaching, I gave open notes tests to students, and I made the lectures, notes, and power points more in depth than usual. The students were required to go back into the mound of notes that they had throughout our discussions and search for answers. Some of the questions were simple recall or search and find the answer, but many of the questions were thought-provoking. I changed my test methods in order to see the difference in the learning between the two years.

    At the end of both years, I gave an assessment on rock music. My findings were astonishing. During my first year (when I gave closed notes tests), students had already forgotten most of the information by the end of the year. Their opinion and knowledge of rock music had not changed much from when they entered the classroom. They were able to name a few more rock bands than when they entered the room, and they were able to name a few different subgenres of rock music, but that was the extent of their learning for rock music.
    The second year, the students were able to tell me more about rock music at the end of the year. They conceptualized concepts of rock music that my first year students did not conceptualize. No, they could not recite facts about rock music, but they could relay to me the importance of rock music throughout history, name some bands that made changes, and explain the different genres of rock music instead of just naming them. I was astounded at the progress they had made when they were not actually required to memorize any information.

    State testing has pushed memorization so much that sometimes teachers seem to forget about the bigger picture. Students need to develop skills of rationalization, problem solving, seeking answers given context, and more. These types of skills do not come from memorization, they come from developing higher-order thinking skills. We have to ask ourselves which is more important—the memorization of facts that students will forget later on in the year, or the conceptualization of concepts that will help build skills useful later on in life?

  12. Hi Dr. Warlick my name is Donte’ Todd. I am currently enrolled in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I would like to congratulate you on another well-written blog. I had this exact same conversation with one of my colleagues today before we took our Literature mid term. I feel as though educators or not teaching for the future, their teaching for “right now”. I love the fact that you e-mailed your teacher about that test and he actually listened. Most educators feel as though students cannot teach them anything. I think differently. I feel as though we are always learning and if a student takes the time out of his or her day to address a problem with me, then I feel like I should, no I feel that it is my obligation as an educator to come up with a solution. Great Read!

  13. In this world we have many resources to guide as in our jobs. Students are always asking why do we need to know and memorize this material. All students think its just for the test and to get a grade. This is why students need to be taught the meaning behind the topic they are learning and why it would help them in the real world. Memorizing can be very difficult for certain people, so I do not think it is fair to have to remember a bunch of history dates or math formulas. In the work world we will have computers, calculators and colloboration with others to suceed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *