Quality: fast write-up (~45 minutes); little researched

I want a university that only does exams, which would include a description of what you need to know for the exams. Bonus would be suggestions for textbooks and online classes to learn the material, but that's optional.


The costs are:

  • Exam creation
  • Supervision
  • Scoring

Exam creation is a fixed cost per topic per round (you need to change the exam each year).

Supervision, if in person, is partly a fixed cost per location, and partly a variable cost. (Someone can supervise students doing exams on different topics.) Online supervision would also be an option ideally.

Scoring is partially a fixed cost (the part that can be automated) and partially a variable cost (the part that need to be reviewed manually).


Frequency of exams could change with demand, but, to start with, you could have one cheap exam per topic per year, timed with the end of normal school years. This would be the exam most people would take, so it would spread the fixed cost among more people. This might also be a more valuable test because it could position you on a normal curve more precisely given the greater amount of people taking it. There could also be more expensive tests throughout the year—more expensive given the fixed cost would be spread among fewer people.

Problem it solves

What this solves:

  1. Decouples learning and exams a) You can learn at your own pace (whether that's more slowly of faster) b) You can learn from wherever you want (maybe you want to learn from different places for different topics)

  2. Creates standardized tests making it easier to compare the competency of students between different schools

Why wanting exams in the first place? Because many governments want them for immigration and many organizations want them for employees.

Questions I have

  1. Has this been done?

  2. Could this be done? Could you have a university that only does exams and emits degrees that are recognized by the US government?

Current state

There are universities that don't require you to attend classes, but I still find those non-ideal because it's:

  1. Bias: In my experience, students that attend have an unfair advantage—Not because they learn more, but because teachers literally (and even intentionally) give unfair hints about their exams to reward students for showing up and justifying their salary.

  2. Inconvenient:

a) You need to be in a specific location for a few years.

b) You can still do some exams only once per year, which prevents doing a degree faster.


While all I'm asking in this post is for non-zero universities to offer this so that the demand for it gets fulfilled, I also have the impression there would be significant benefits at a societal level from more fully decoupling exams and learning in general. It seems to me like test scores would become more meaningful, and it would become cheaper to get scored.


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40 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:21 PM

Huh, I thought this was basically standard in german universities. In my math degree there were no mandatory classes or homework or anything, the only thing that mattered was what grade you got at the exam at the end of the semester. There were lectures and homework, but it was totally up to you how you learned the content (and I did indeed choose basically full self-study).

This was my experience studying in the Netherlands as well. University officials were indeed on board with this, with the general assumption being that lectures and instructions and labs and such are a learning resource that you can use or not use at your discretion.

Maths at my Dutch university also has homework for quite a few of the courses, which often counts for something like 10-20% of final grade. It can usually be submitted online, so you only need to be physically present for exams. However, there are a small number of courses that are exceptions to this, and actually require attendance to some extent (e.g. a course on how to give a scientific presentation, where a large part of the course consists of students giving and commenting on each other's presentations - not so easy to replace the learning experience with a single exam at the end).

But this differs between Dutch universities.

In American universities some smaller classes would take attendance. Bigger classes worked pretty much like you described, where there are lectures and stuff but you could ignore them, and what ultimately matters are the exams.

But the "party line" is that you're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to go to the lectures. Ie. if you asked some university PR representative, they wouldn't say "it's totally up to you whether or not you want to go to lectures". Is that how it is in German universities as well, or is the party line that it truly is up to you?

I did a bit of a weird thing because I started university while I was still in high-school, but I had many friends who never attended a single lecture, and maybe did like 15% of the homework, and nobody cared and they didn't seem to feel bad about it.

For context, at Berkeley (where I actually finished my undergrad) more than half of my classes had mandatory labs, and maybe 30% of my grade was determined by homework grades in almost all classes, so it was a very different experience.

That is common in American universities as well, but if you asked a university administrator about it they wouldn't endorse it. Would a university administrator for German universities say "yes, go right ahead and skip all the lectures if you want" or would they say "no, we strongly advise against that"?

For many universities, there's a maximum courseload they'll let you register for.  You can probably get a 4-year degree in 2.5 years if you're actually willing and able to study well enough to pass tests and the required not-only-test classes.  But no matter how good you are, I don't know any that will give you a degree in one-shot if you already can ace all the tests.

Don't know, I literally never talked to one during my studies. My guess is they would advise against it, but be pretty clear that it's ultimately up to you.

(American here, talking about American universities) I had resented the mandatory attendance and homework in high school, and some people told me that college would be better in that regard, but others told me that this varied and it was up to individual professors whether to enforce a mandate.  This was one of the reasons I didn't try to enter college.

When did you do your math degree? I have experience from studying physics, biology, cs, and economics in Germany at different times within about 10 years. They all had various degrees of attendance and coursework requirements, though fr what I understand far less than US universities.

At the end a counterexample where it basically is like this, afaik & iirc.

It used to be standard, at least for courses that didn't require lab work, because it's difficult to test practical, hands-on experience in an exam. Since Germany has adopted Bachelor and Master degrees, it varies a ton. There's a lot more mandatory attendance, which also gets checked; even completely theoretical classes - mathematics, theoretical physics, economics (to name some I took at German universities) - now often not only have homework, but also mandatory attendance for the tutoring seminars dedicated to this. Lecture attendance was, where I studied, still generally (or at least practically) optional.

My experiences are from 3 different major German universities: the RWTH Aachen (Physics), University of Bonn (Biology), and Humboldt-University of Berlin (CS with an econ minor).

I've heard of universities with far stricter attendance policies (generally, my lectures didn't require attendance, the more class-like "practical sessions" - even if it was just about solving math problems - generally did). The "homework" didn't affect the final grade, but students needed to successfully complete a certain percentage in order to be admitted to the exam.

Now to the counterexample: law. It's in general still structured far more traditionally. I think there might be some papers to write (possibly instead of exams?), but generally, students just have to pass the exam for every subject to be admitted to the final exam. Moreover, it doesn't matter what grade you pass with, you just have to pass. The only grades that matter are the ones in the first and second state examination at the end (the first being after the regular university study, the second after some practical work in various areas of the legal field.)

I studied at Universität Stuttgart in mathematics. I was also in a bit of a weird program that probably had a bit more freedom than other programs. I started it in 2013. 

The university of London external programme used to offer this, and was extremely cheap (relative to British universities). I paid just over 6000 pounds for a 3 year degree run by LSE.

We were posted a textbook for each course we signed up to at the start of the year, and then took the exam at the end of the year. A couple of past papers were available online.

It was very tough to keep motivated to properly learn the stuff - my guess is most people got one grade lower than they would have got with tutoring, but in the end I managed to get a first for an average of probably 2 or 3 hours of work a week (I studied maths, and am naturally very talented at that. Other people would probably take longer).

Unfortunately they've now started adding mandatory online classes, and increased the cost of the degree to match.

If you're looking for a self-check of your level of knowledge, online courses very often include such exams on the material. 

If you're looking for accreditation or a fully-equivalent degree to a traditional university, I don't think this is sufficient.  Exams, and even knowledge they test, are not the entirety of what a degree signals.  It's arguable that the other things (ability to put up with bullshit, conscientiousness, some amount of participation and work with other students, actual thesis papers, etc.) are not actually super-valuable, but the desires to have them remain.  These will be expected to be bundled with credentials called "university degree" for a long long time.

Probably requires a lot of conscientiousness to self-study for those exams. I'd be fine with thesis papers remaining part of what you need to submit for the degree. But yeah, seems likely that "ability to go through university as it currently is" remains an arbitrary criteria that is maintained.

Yeah, from what I remember Bryan Caplan talks about this in his book The Case Against Education.

The ability to put up with bullshit is valuable: bullshit cannot be ignored once it is reified into real world objects, documents, habits.

Those who are conscientious and intelligent enough to be able to self-study university-level material and be consistent with it over a period of years don't need to attend this sort of university because they're already overwhelmingly likely to succeed in life the traditional way. And the rest (the vast majority of people), desperately need the structure of going to class to motivate themselves to do anything. And university is mostly not about learning anyway, it's an excuse to make friends, find future wives/husbands and generally have a good time and learn how to behave in adult social environments.  

I think there's a significant amount of people between "not conscientious and intelligent enough for self-study" and "conscientious and intelligent enough that no degree is needed".

For example, there are really interesting jobs I can't get because I don't have a business degree nor a US work permit. I'm qualified enough for those jobs, and I'm pretty sure I'd do better self-studying, but I need a degree to prove it to the US government. I might become successful enough to get some other visas, such as by investing a lot in the US economy, but I still think there's a lot of people in this middle ground.

What "traditional way" do you have in mind? I feel like most successful people today have attended (and usually graduated from) a traditional university.

For my understanding Western Governors University pretty much does this. I got my masters here are every class was either a project or a final to finish it. Also it’s a non-profit accredited college based in Utah so it’s my just a scam. I also really like that you pay by semester not credit so I was able to finish my degree in a year

Very little of the value I got out of my university degree came from the exams or the textbooks. All of that I could have done on my own. Much of the value of the lectures could have been replicated by lecture videos. The fancy name on my resume is nice for the first few years (especially graduating in the middle of the 2009 recession) and then stops mattering. 

But the smaller classes, the ones with actual back and forth with actually interested professors? The offhand comments that illustrate how experts actually approach thinking about their fields? The opportunities to work in actual labs even though anyone sane knew no undergrad was going to offer much more than a useful pair of hands in the 3-4 months they could devote to a project? The insights into how science and academia and industry actually work and what that meant for what kind of career I wanted? Those I don't think I would have gotten anywhere else.

The single biggest selling point of my undergrad institution was the unparalleled access to faculty and the resources available to do research internships with them. Ironically, I didn‘t take advantage of any of that, at all, and made my way through my BS as if I were at OP’s hypothetical institution. FWIW, I still ended up at my graduate school of choice, so maybe the research opportunities weren’t so valuable after all.

I started writing a post similar to this and haven't finished it. I hope to finish soon because I think this a very important change to make to the education system, I explain why in the post.

The Open University in the UK is the only one I know of that's set up for remote learning. They do have coursework though.

Exams-Only Universities: The University of Chicago tried it during the administration of Robert M Hutchins (1929-1951) The project failed for a lot of reasons, many of them having to do with academic politics.

To some extent, Oxford University embodies such a system because they separate examinations and grading from teaching.

A very interesting system of examinations and certifications is run by the Society of Actuaries. Fellowship in the Society is based solely on having passed a number of examinations on relevant topics. The examinations are substantive and very difficult. But, time spent sitting in a class room is irrelevant.

In some states, including both New York and California, it is possible to sit for the bar examination and be admitted without having gone to law school. I read that Kim Kardashian was trying to do that.

Given the comprehensive collapse of the system of higher education in the US due to administrative sclerosis and ideological capture, it would be a good thing to explore models that do not involve residency in toxic monocultures and years spent in drunkenness and debauchery.

One way to do this would be to create houses of study dedicated to these exams for students and a tutor work together in the community to accomplish these goals without requiring a very large costly institution. Group house plus the tutor/academic coordinator.

Sal Khan of Khan Academy talks about this in his book The One World Schoolhouse.

This reminds me of the AP tests in america. These are tests administered in the by The College Board (same company that runs the SATs) which give college credit for their subject. Many high schools teach AP classes for particular tests, but you could just study for them yourself.

This also reminds me of China's gaokao - a giant standardized test that all high schoolers take for college placements. There was a large market for after-school tutoring for these tests, before the PRC banned the entire industry. I think Japan and Taiwan have similar systems.

Decoupling testing from teaching is just commonsense incentive design. It has been tried before and it works.
It's not called an "exam-only-university" because it gives out tests once a quarter out of rented facilities and has no campus, no dorms, no frats, and no clubs.

I cant see that working for a whole lot of subjects. At its' heart is idea of degree as accreditation of competence. However, "competence" extends far beyond passing an examination for a lot of subjects. eg most science subjects that I can think of. Actual work is likely involve field and/or lab work and when I hire, I am looking for grads that I have confidence in those competencies. I don't see how you acquire that from exams-only approach.

I would also say from my own experience that lectures were really only a big thing at first year (NZ uni) or in maths, and that I learned a hell of lot from interactions with my fellow students as we battled with material especially in the senior years (where we had a common room together). I did notice the arts students lived much more insular lives (my own children in arts did remarkably little interaction with classmates which surprised me).

The real nub, since you are looking at degree as a certification, is that faced with candidates from exam only uni, versus a traditional uni with compulsory lab and field work, which would I employ? I'd take the traditional. Could be different for humanities. 

People often study on their own for the GREs or for the Actuarial exams. In both cases the results are taken seriously, there are a ton of prep materials, and I think the exams are funded by a flat fee to test takers (which works due to the magic of economy of scale).

I took a really great class like that in undergrad, and it was a lot of fun. It turned out to be very challenging, and a passing grade was 40%. Surely classes like these aren't too uncommon?

This is loosely what the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) is.

Relatedly, anyone knows a good fully-remote business degree where one wouldn't need to attend classes at specific times, uses HTML-based videos so one can speed them up with a browser extension, has a lot of dense text-based information / few videos, and which one could complete in a short time frame (ie. where one could do all exams in a short period of time)?

The Open University of Israel may be of interest to you. Though they have materials and lectures, many (including gifted High School students, the employed, and even Military personnel) can and do just hand in Problem Sets and take Exams while studying separately with whatever resource they prefer.

Studied engineering in Switzerland ~20 years ago. System was 1 main exam at end of school year in June, if you fail for some subjects you can get a redo in September (punishment being need to study during summer...). There are many many subjects where I almost never attended class (I spent a LOT of money photocopying notes taken by more assiduous classmates though, bless their souls) . One time I showed up for a final exam in a class where I hadn't attended a single lecture, and I was actually friendly with the professor through other channels, and he was like aha didn't know you were in this class and we both had a good laugh about it and he didn't take it as an offense to his teaching. The system worked great for me, not sure whether it still continues today or not.

Some fields only require completing a series of test for entry. No degree required. I'll put in parentheses one's that I'm not sure don't require a bachelor's degree. Certified Actuary Chartered Financial Analyst (Certified Public Accountant) (Various other financial certifications) (Foreign Service Officer's exam) (The bar exam: I don't know how one can get them to let you sit the exam without a law degree, but it is allegedly possible in California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington). There are a lot of certificate programs out there for long established work that involves brains but not in person learning (money and law). In computer science, "building things" is the certificate, I suppose.

Curious, how is this different from certain professional designations, like the CFA or CPA?  I think both do require degrees to sit, but if they didn't have those requirements would those fit?

I work in a field (computer science) that at least in Europe doesn’t require much accreditation at all.

In fact, I started to work in my domain before I started my first semester. I didn’t care for examination of my hard skills that much though it was fun to challenge myself, I admit.

When I applied for my degree I did so exactly because I was missing all the other benefits it provides: access to equipment and labs, Erasmus, grants for projects which are non-profitable, understanding practices I do at work by having deep talks about theory of it etc. etc.

Exams are the most boring and least teaching part of the uni.

IT professional certifications work like this. Also 'bain4weeks' worked until the one accredited college that offered GRE credit towards a degree stopped doing it.

Someone who has completed more degrees than me might be able to answer this better than me -- but don't drag me too hard. Mea Culpa for anything wrong here.

Standardised testing is basically the problem. Particularly standardised testing around semi-arbitrary material; or at least material which is not as likely to be applicable to the real world as some other x set of material. 

Also doesn't solve the gap between real-world problem solving and learning material. Two distinctly different skills.

If you're going to continue to enforce standardised testing; test people once at 18. And let people take the test as young as they want. Then use the age as a multiplier (like how people try and scale IQ tests) -- this is basically how SATs work, but not everyone gets equal access to SAT prep, and the same prep is usually directed at people of different abilities.

After that you need to basically get rid of academia or the extremely lazy + boring people, with a lack of incentives to do real world work therein. At any point you need someone smarter and more experienced than you to be teaching you -- sometimes that's not possible and you need consistent ways to measure someone's ability without sacrificing too much of their time in this world. 

At least in my experience, 'real material' is kept away from your until your final year of college, or until grad school. There are some more timeless, or modern degrees where I'm sure it's better (somewhere has to have an up-to-date CompSci degree. Right? Right?).

Every single university course is like ~10 years behind. This is a problem that should be left with private enterprise but can't be because of the perverse incentives and the fact that certifying, e.g. $4\sigma+$ people is always going to be practically impossible. We simply don't have enough of them. They're always going to need to prove themselves through their life's work. The best we can do is be open minded people (especially in disciplines where rigorous proof isn't always possible -- everywhere except Math). Until we get direct brain scans that can tell you how smart and capable someone is -- there's not gonna be a better solution.

Just let people take whatever classes they want, minimise barriers -- and allow direct contact with students. It's the best you can do TBH. No system has managed to solve this problem. There are people toting your idea -- there are those petitioning that people be able to take Oxbridge tests for a flat fee. I think this is a decent idea (except you'd get test crammers who'd try and pass the test without actually understanding it -- I think this is a separate problem which clearly Oxbridge should ideally try and be immune to). 

That's the best I've got. Hope you find relief. Go to some graduate classes in fun subjects and teach yourself some stuff. That's the best option for some, with the shitty system we have. If they let you take graduate classes or test out of the easy stuff then do that!