How (And Why) To Make Your Tests Highly Subjective

May 25, 2018

A materialist society like ours overvalues objectivity, and rarely understands the necessity of subjectivity. This confusion wreaks havoc on the way we test, and on expectations of fairness in grading. I offer the following series of reflections and theses on objectivity and subjectivity in testing and grading. My intention is not to dismiss objectivity, which is both real and necessary, but to correct the profound overemphasis on objectivity in our society. My comments are directed towards teachers of philosophy, theology, literature, and history. 

1. By itself, a purely objective test can only ever make students smart or keep them on their toes; yet many smart people are miserable, and many cruel people are focused.

2. If Wikipedia could ace your tests, you are not teaching human beings. You are teaching machines.

3. If a history teacher does not know the names and dates of the House of Tudor by heart, but requires his students to know those names and dates by heart, he is a hypocrite and does not understand the art of teaching.   

4. If only a wise man could ace your tests, perhaps your students will become a little wise; human beings will not do difficult things unless you ask them to. If your tests require students to say deep things, and draw deep connections between things and ideas and philosophies and theologies and saints, your students might become interesting and virtuous people. Knowledge is simply knowing that certain things are, but wisdom is knowing how the souls of things rhyme with each other. If you do not require your students to be deep and say interesting things, and if you give them no incentive to be interesting, why in the world would you expect them to become interesting people? Being interesting is hard work, being deep is even harder. But you’re the teacher. You can incentivize whatever you want. You can make being interesting a lucrative possibility. You can reward depth of thought and creativity if you like.  

5. On that day some vexed student approaches me with graded work in hand and pointedly says, “I got a 100 on this essay. That seems highly subjective. I want you to know that I plan on scheduling a meeting with the dean about this,” the Second Coming of our Lord will be nigh.

6. Human beings do not mind subjectivity one bit. Objectivity might be necessary for heart surgery and plumbing, but subjectivity makes life livable. The happiness of a man, in particular, depends on a woman being willing to make highly subjective judgments of him. The man who only makes objective judgments of his girlfriend is soon to get dumped. The husband who only makes objective judgments of his wife will often find himself sleeping on the couch. The woman who is only interested in the objective judgments of her husband will find herself without an enthusiastic partner for conversation come evening. “That’s really unfortunate Kim said that to you,” is a highly subjective claim.  

7. Objections to subjective judgments typically blur the boundaries between “subjective” and “arbitrary.” Arbitrary means without cause, without nature, without trajectory. If a man finishes eating a steak and says, “That steak was delicious,” he has made a subjective judgment. If he says, “That steak was $12.50,” he has made an objective judgment. And if he says, “That steak was tuba that,” he has spoken arbitrarily. Arbitrary judgments are not really judgments, for they have no positive value. Many Medievals believed man was incapable of making purely arbitrary judgments, and that the only arbitrary “decision” a man could make would necessarily be sinful. Subjective judgments are not merely based on feeling, but on discernment, experience and the poetic interpretation of experience.

8. When I say subjective judgments are based on experience, I mean the opinion of an expert simply matters more than the opinion of a common man. Be not deceived, all opinions are not equally meritorious. The opinions of a three-star Michelin chef on the subject of tomatoes matters far more than a twelve year old’s judgment that, “All tomatoes are gross.” In both England and the United States, the opinions of common people are rarely admissible in a court of law, but if a witness is admitted as an “expert witness,” he may give all the opinions he likes, provided they are in the range of his expertise. Christian schools should make it a goal to graduate students whose opinions matter and who know how to judge between sound and unsound opinions. The only way to do this is to incentivize the deepening of opinions, which cannot take place without practice.

9. The glory of literature, philosophy, poetry, and theology is that they are subjective, and the glory of biology, chemistry, and algebra is that they are objective. However, contrary to what most Enlightened moderns believe, subjective claims are no more apt to change than objective claims. “Dante was born in 1265” is an objective claim, but is subject to revision, for it might be based on forged historical documents. Scientific formulas are objective, but they are subject to revision and refinement. New discoveries are more apt to change science, but no new discovery will change, “Love thy enemies,” or “As kingfisher’s catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” or the mesmerizing ambiguity of Mona Lisa’s smile. The objectivity of biology is by no means an excuse to give students tests which a computer could ace. If there is not some poetry involved in a biology class, that class is fascist, and if that poetry is not somehow involved in biology tests, that is lamentable. But the proportion of subjectivity to a biology exam should equal the proportion of objectivity on a history exam; it may play a role, but not a dominant role.

10. Judging subjective things in an objective way makes as much sense as judging objective things in a subjective way. 

11. Little harms the humanities quite like the attempt to set up purely objective evaluations of students. I am blessed to not work at a school which requires detailed rubrics for the assessing of essays (and in my experience, such demands are uncommon), though I have seen a few teachers at other schools try to employ rubrics for the grading of essays and projects; rubrics tend to “work” only insofar as they produce high grades. Claiming an essay which is “very beautiful and well-conceived” warrants a 95% to 98%, or that an essay which is “somewhat beautiful” deserves a 90% to 94%... these are not objective claims, but worse: they offer the false promise of an objective evaluation. In the end, the teacher will determine a certain essay was “woefully incompetent” (30% to 34%), while the student who wrote it will claim it was “basically pretty good I thought” (70%).

12. If the Humanities teacher demands his students know certain objective facts, he should include those facts in a catechism which is recited every day at the beginning of class, but which has no real value in terms of grades. The catechism should not be memorized outside of class. If the facts are sufficiently valuable, saying them every day is a worthy use of time. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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