Sunday, July 02, 2006

What's the role of memorized material in a written exam? It really depends on what skill the candidate is being examined for.

If we were still hiring civil service personnel for the dynastic Chinese court, memorized texts are all-important because they reflect the candidate's ability to be absolutely accurate in keeping records and in passing on information that, without his (not her) personal trustworthiness, would be unverifiable and thus useless in helping a superior officer trying to access the information make any intelligent decisions.

If we were still an oral culture, our whole history, mythology, culture, belief system and laws reside fully in the memory of a single archivist, usually a storyteller or bard. Candidates seeking to succeed the incumbent storyteller must faithfully memorize word for word the entire oral history of the people and in a public examination narrate the entire story tracing generations of different families and their exploits from the time of the earliest creation myths.

Some cultures are so serious about the exam that the chief examiner, the incumbent himself, is required to instantly club the candidate to death at the first error in the examination. He will then train a new candidate until one who renders a flawless narration can be found. Why so serious? It's because nothing about the people has been written down. Any error in the telling completely messes up the people's identity and beliefs, and errors compound themselves like in the game "broken telephone." And unless stringent, unforgiving standards are set, the people will never be able to know themselves with any certainty.

Life has got much more complicated since then. Information is not a problem for most of us to access. Not because of the Internet, but because practically everyone today can read and write. Today's exams aren't just about memorization skills. Especially at JC level, the skills being tested are mainly problem-solving skills. There is a series of questions through which the candidate demonstrates skills in pattern-recognition, logical reasoning, and moral awareness (especially in GP); and it is in his or her abilities in these areas that achievement is recognized.

Notice that many examinations are of the "closed-book" variety. The skills the candidate brings to play need to be practiced way beforehand. Moreover, the materials the candidate brings into the exam hall have to be stored within easily accessible locations in the brain. So yes, memorization is a crucial factor in any written exam. The more facts memorized, the more options one has in finding a solution to the problem at hand. The more toys you bring, the more different games we can play, I always say.

The problem comes when students stop at the memorization stage and think that reproducing notes, textbook pages and other copyright material as verbatim as possible is what will score them the most marks. Different skill for a different exam for a different time. Sorry.

The biggest nightmare for me is marking scripts that are obviously memorized and plonked down near vabatim without showing any understanding of the concept being referred to, or any appreciation of the question being answered, but rather using it because the topic appears similar.

We still keep reminding our students to accurately recall names, locations, events from the real-world to substantiate the solutions they are proposing on their exam scripts. That takes memory. BUT we also need to see skill in selecting the appropriate memes and in shaping them in a form relevant to the question in order to award marks.

Mei is right, and I should have made myself clearer in my previous entry. These days, memorization is still important in an exam, but it just isn't enough. The good news is, if you spend less time reading and re-reading your textbooks trying to memorize chunks of paragraphs that don't make sense, and more time inquiring into; discussing; and making observations about what you have just read with someone else (not necessarily your teacher) you tend to remember it a lot easier as you seek to understand what it's all about.

So why are y'all still wasting time reading this rubbish? Go study!

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