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Localization of Knowledge

A wise man once told me, “Open book tests are a trap.” He elaborated by noting that usually if you have to look up things in the text book, you’ll probably run out of time. Perhaps phrased another way, the sentiment could be expressed that one should not rely on having access to the textbook during the test in place of studying, because it will take too long to access in the information in the text compared to the information fetch times of even the most addled brain.

But more and more in my computer studies, I’m finding that open-book is really the only way to go.

In days past, the case for closed-book test was a sound, if obvious one: if I were allowed to have my text during my Civics & Economics tests, I might not remember to this day that Marbury v. Madison was the case that established the power of judicial review. Then again, the above warning against reliance on texts might have been my downfall there, and a case should be made for the fact that Marbury v. Madison is one of a few court cases we were encouraged to memorize for that class. I’m sure there are a few of them that have been completely forgotten, despite my teacher’s best effort.

But the important distinction, I find, between those classes and my current computer science ones are that in those, it was the information being taught that was the important thing. But in programming, the book only contains the tools and the test is really finding out your ability to put them together. Yesterday’s “Programming Concepts II” test is probably a prime example of this: if you didn’t know how to recursively manipulate a linked list, you were sunk. However, that high level knowledge had to be translated into actual computer code, which is where the textbook came in, by documenting the interface to this linked list you were working with.

I find this a rather refreshing change from my experience in AP Computer Science in high school, which culminated in, obviously, the AP test. Not only was this test closed-book, but it required knowledge of a multi-thousand line “case study” written in Java. “If this and that are done to a case study of these things, what will happen?” The shame to all of this is the fact that it completely negates one of the most significant advantages Java has over other programming languages: its neurotic obsession with documentation. While having a “pocket guide” to other programming languages can save headaches when working in them, with Java it just plain isn’t necessary.

But I think the larger and more important question than closed or open books is whether or not to have tests at all. To make the case against tests, I offer up my Discrete Math course, where the entire grade is based on ten homework assignments, a midterm, and a final. The homework assignments are, naturally, open-book, meaning that, for example, I don’t have to be able to remember the difference between modus ponens and modus tollens off the top of my head.

But as an experiment, this semester, my professor constructed the midterm as a take-home assignment to be completed over spring break. Now, of course, this means that many students — myself included — put it off until the night before it was due. But the point is that when we did do it, we were able to use the textbook, our notes, and even the internet. Given that, if I ever need to implement the Extended Euclidean Algorithm, these are the same resources I’ll have in any rational setting, the ability to use them on this test just makes too much sense.

Since it was such a resounding success, he’s also going to make the final exam a take-home test. It’s probably safe to say that this decision, coupled with the take-home midterm, will make the difference between my passing and failing. (Well, they do each count for 30% of my grade.)

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Categories: College
  1. Grandma
    April 4, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Very interesting, Hober. It’s the difference between regurgitating information and doing something with the information. In your field it would be silly to clog up your brain with charts and tables which are easily accessible in the textbook and elsewhere. But, as you point out, if you don’t know what to do with that information obviously you’re going to fail the test. And evidently you’ve been going to class, doing your assignments, and taking notes, so you know what is going on. I’m sure you’ll do great with your mid-term and final take-home test in Discrete Math.

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