The Futility of Surprise Tests

P.S. I had my masters thesis presentation today. I started writing this on 14th April, but of course I didn’t get around to publishing it. After a month and a half without a post, I don’t even think I can make a proper excuse. But I am done with college, and I am going to be free till the second week of July and there will be regular posts until then. (I am thinking twice a week. Forced-sort, so that I don’t have the choice to not write. Kind of like a short re-run of 100 days of writing. Enough blabbering, on to the post now)

Anyone who has been a student in India for more than 10 years will know that surprise quizzes are the oldest tool in the teacher’s arsenal. It is wielded whenever a teacher feels that they are not being given due respect or the students are taking the course too lightly or (and this is the best) when a teacher feels that their students are not studying regularly. How sharp is this tool? And consequently, how far into the bulletproof vest of a not up-to-date student does it enter?

Anyone who has been a student anywhere also knows that very few people study regularly. So, what’s the point of Surprise tests really?

Some context: A few weeks ago, a surprise test was conducted. I had sort-of flaked out on the classes and I had some notes, but I mainly didn’t know much. This was the post mid term surprise quiz, I knew the pre-mid-term stuff well but nothing after that. Surprisingly, for me, I got the correct answer for both questions! It was really incredible. That was when the question came up. If I was able to get both questions right, what did the test screen for?

There are a few things a test generally screens for. It can screen for knowledge, it can screen for ability of applying knowledge, it can screen for understanding of the origins of knowledge (subjective questions, derivations), it might also screen for nothing at all. A version of classroom smoke screen that exists for no reason.

10 days before that subject’s end term exam, I can safely say that more than 90% of the class was completely unprepared. Those who had attended classes might have some idea, those who hadn’t shouldn’t have had any idea except for what they gained here and there in the few classes they attended. A teacher who has been teaching for 6 years knows this and thus, the surprise quiz was not screening for knowledge or it’s applicability.

Was it screening for origins? Maybe. This is a tough one, because theoretically, someone with a threshold amount of knowledge should be able to complete a derivation. But if you have ever studied Real Analysis or Switching and Finite Automata, you know that most derivations follow a very specific approach. Approaching it from any other direction will lead you nowhere. (This is not true for Graph Theory, where a lot of approaches seem to work. This course wasn’t Graph Theory)

That’s about all the evidence I have. I don’t see the point of surprise quizzes at all. But apart from being useless, I think they are harmful because they award the wrong set of people: basically, a random set of people.

Surprise quizzes are often conducted by professors who don’t take daily attendance in their classes. Instead, they keep saying “There could be a surprise test on any day”, the implication being that students should be scared enough to come to every class. Even if a student is scared, something might happen that leads to the student missing a class. I have missed at least 5 8 am classes where a surprise test was conducted in a course where I attended most of the other classes; I am talking not attending 5-6 classes in the whole 4 month semester.

So, basically, surprise tests as a proxy for attendance award the wrong set of people. And they eliminate the reward for the people who should get it. I feel bad about getting the answers right because if the teacher had taken attendance, I wouldn’t have gotten those marks and that would have been fair.

So, laziness leads to surprise tests, and surprise tests don’t reward the people who are regular. TL;DR Surprise tests reward a random subset of the students in a class and should be done away with.