I know what you’re thinking. No, I did not just fail a history exam.
I have long had objections to the structure of history class, not because of material, but because of testing. You could probably make an argument for traditional testing as a whole being outdated in the modern American school system, but that is not what I am aiming to do. I know that history is much better without tests and here is why:
You hear at the beginning of every school year: “history is not about memorizing random facts, it’s about using your knowledge to form arguments” and so on. The teachers who state this then turn around the next day, week, or month, and give you a test on random facts you are supposed to memorize. Not only is this misleading the student, but it also completely misses the point of history, analysis and application. What is the best way to teach your students analysis and application? Have them write essays and make arguments.
Essays and other writing assignments, although sometimes boring, should really be the only large form of grading in history class. A student’s ability to understand history and apply it to something meaningful shines through much better in an essay than a multiple-choice or fill in the blank question. I understand that we already have writing assignments and even written test components in history classes, but why not have those be the only form of testing?
During the Covid pandemic, I experienced just that, and it was the best history experience I have had. No longer focused on individual details, I instead looked at big picture ideas, and I was able to have a better understanding of each topic to analyze them effectively. Sure, I used specific examples to prove my arguments, but I chose each moment individually to suit my case, not because they were random things I knew, but because they were important and relevant. Every assignment was made easier but more intellectually stimulating as I was able to form my own views and ideas about the text to write original essays. In terms of studying, it wasn’t memorizing a list of facts and dates, it was going through the textbook and my notes, looking for the most important moments to use. That’s really what history is about and even though history teachers know this, our old traditions never die.
As soon as we returned to school, these quizzes and tests returned. Forcing me and other students into boring memorization of trivial details that we will forget within the year in order to get a better grade on the test, instead of a greater understanding of history. Do I really need to know which state the Moravian Brethren were based in? Unless I am specifically interested in small colonial religions that force arranged marriages, I don’t think so.
Considering each of these factors, unless you believe schools should create the world’s next great Jeopardy! players, history tests just don’t make sense.