Why Graduate Exams Make NO Sense

Posted on April 27, 2011

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Graduate exams, some schools still do them  and it perplexes me to no end. Do not get me wrong, I know why they do it. Graduate exams happen because of tradition and as a way to weed out graduate students, but these reasons are plain silly.

Tradition is great, at the same time if you do not adapt to changing circumstances you could go the way of the dodo.

Eliminating students-

First, why would you take on more students then you think could or should get a MA or PhD? It is unfair to the students and they will only end up resenting the school for taking their money and leading them on. Right now, the schools face no retribution for this but it is only a matter of time. Two or three years could cost a person tens of thousands of dollars. It is only takes that one student who is financially ruined and unstable enough to climb to the top of a bell tower with a rifle. Calling it now. It might not be in archaeology, but somewhere sometime soon it will happen and the reason will be because of unfulfilled dreams and student dept.

Second, a test is not an unbiased examination of a students skills and they can be manipulated. See the description from Sally Binford (by the way the article this comes from is amazing I recommend everyone read it)

“The first big hurdle was the prelims. The Chicago department at that point, had a policy of taking in large numbers of grad students. In my entering class there were 44, and perhaps 3 or 4 of us would receive a Ph.D.; it was that difficult. The big filtering thing was the prelims—two days of written exams over physical and cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics.

“The first big hurdle was the prelims. The Chicago department at that point, had a policy of taking in large numbers of grad students. In my entering class there were 44, and perhaps 3 or 4 of us would receive a Ph.D.; it was that difficult. The big filtering thing was the prelims—two days of written exams over physical and cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics.

“When I took the exams the students were identified by number and not by name on them so I passed. The departmental secretary was a black woman who liked me. That summer I stopped by the office and she asked if I had gotten a Ph.D. pass and I said yes. She said
Dr. Tax sent in the wrong grade for you. She showed me he had sent into the registrar’s office that I had gotten a terminal masters, which meant I couldn’t go on for the Ph.D. She told me I could get to the very end of my career and it would be my word versus
his.

“I went to the registrar’s office and to the various faculty members who knew I had creamed the exam and got the grade changed. It was pretty awful. For me to have to rectify this error was awful. Definitely it was an intentional error.

Tests are not unbiased and can just as easily but changed as essay grades.

Third, an exam has no real world application. YOU WILL NOT HAVE TO TAKE A TEST TO-

  • apply for or receive grants/funding
  • to excavate
  • to write an article for a peer reviewed paper
  • to conduct a survey
  • to write a mitigation report
  • in the process of conserving a ceramic

….. 0r any other task that makes a person a good archaeologists. If, exams are not eliminating a person because they will make a bad archaeologists, then, chances are you are eliminating good archaeologists for reasons that have no bearing on how well they will perform in the future.

At best, exams are a waste of time. At worst, they are actually degrading the field of archaeology.

So, if you are faculty member reading this and your school still does graduate examinations…. Please Stop!