5 reasons to rethink the purpose of exams and to re-evaluate our approach

by | 3 May, 2018 | 3 comments

We have been educators for years. But have we ever thought about why we are having exams in our classes? What’s in it for the students? Are exams really necessary? We need to rethink the purpose of exams and to re-evaluate our approach as educators.

1. It creates stress and pressure

I don’t know about you, but from my perspective, taking exams is incredibly stressful. You involuntarily wake up in the morning, and even if you know you are prepared for the subject, the feeling of annoyance is always present. You are out to prove your knowledge and show your best performance in the limited timeframe decided by your lecturer. Your palms get sweaty, you go to the toilet a couple of times, then as you sit down to take the exam you realise that you just forget everything that you know!

My husband is an electrical engineer currently working in the industry. Last year he woke up from a nightmare where he was back at school, it was before the finals, and he had to sit quite a number of exams to pass. Upon waking up and realising he is not at uni anymore, he released a huge sigh of relief. To be honest, I pitied him. ‘What have they done to you sweetheart? It’s been over 15 years since you graduated, and look at your dreams!’

Why are we doing this to our students? I think it is time to explore alternative ways of conducting less stressful and more authentic methods of assessments. Are exams actually necessary?

2. The industry expects collaborative problem solvers

At UTS, we aim to prepare our students to be ready to work in industry. When they start working, they will be expected to solve open-ended complex problems, and employers will not expect them to work in isolation. In a century like this, where most of the resources are available online, why are we still expecting our students to have ‘no resources at all’ when they sit isolated for an exam?*

Instructors argue that students should not learn during the exam. I wholeheartedly agree with this position. But even when I am writing this blog, my online dictionary is open. I am not learning ‘how to write’ from Google; rather, I am just looking at a few words that will enhance this piece of writing.

If we expect our students to be active learners and to be collaborative we should not make them sit alone for hours writing on a piece of paper. We should expect them to solve problems in collaboration. For more on why exams aren’t necessarily the best preparation for life after school or uni finishes, watch this video on why perfect grades don’t matter.

3. It kills creativity

How can we expect our engineering students to be creative thinkers if we only assess their knowledge and not the application of their knowledge? We must consider not only the results but also their learning experience during the process. This is not very likely to be achieved in an invigilated exam. Exams do not encourage learning, are not constructive, and are not motivational.

A quote often attributed to Einstein is: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Whether he said this or not, the spirit of this argument holds true. If we are going to assess our student engineers as engineers, then let’s assess their ability to be an engineer in everyday ways, not in artificial ways. If we do not facilitate opportunities for our students to be creative, then there is no way that we can assess their true value. Exams are not the best way to facilitate their creativity. This article offers an interesting perspective: Intelligence cannot be defined by exams.

4. Exams are not the only way to assess one’s intellect and capabilities

Being an educator in design studios for a decade I cannot think about assessing my students with an exam. We have projects, studios, assignments, presentations, portfolios. But I do respect other disciplines if they absolutely need one. I propose that we need to “rethink” the purpose of exams and to “redesign” them. Assessment can be a part of the learning process too.

More on this approach:

Should we do away with exams altogether? No, but we need to rethink their design and purpose.

Exams vs Coursework – The Big Debate

5. This has been on the world’s agenda for over a decade

The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of abolishing the exam has been ongoing for over a decade. So, why are we not re-evaluating our approach to exams?

Why should we abolish the university exam?

Why exams Should be abolished From schools?

What do you think – should we move on from exam formats and embrace new forms of assessment? 

* The new UTS Assessment Policy stipulates that at UTS, exams are open-book wherever possible. 

3 Comments

  1. Lucy Arthur

    Jasmine, I often have an exam nightmare like your husband! I suddenly remember a class that I’d enrolled in months before and forgotten, and then I have to try to wing a difficult exam I can’t understand.

    I think it’s a really positive move that UTS policy now aims for exams to be open book wherever practical, and I’ve posted about open book exams here: https://futures.uts.edu.au/blog/2018/02/13/design-open-book-exam/

    Reply
    • Jasmine Tekmen-Araci

      Hi Lucy, thanks. I discovered your post this morning. It’s great how you relate it to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

      Reply
  2. Darrall Thompson

    Hi Jasmine,
    YES … we have a system where ease of certification is more important than the development of students’ capabilities or attributes… getting rid of exams won’t happen until we can all agree on a better assessment system… and I believe that the only way we can replace them is to have the same categories of assessment or measurement that span all sectors including school (and home school) TAFE and uni education.

    So what is the best research ?

    There is hope from the realms of psychology… Howard Gardner, now 70 years old but still a professor at Harvard, was the first to formulate the concept of multiple intelligences… actually if you research multiple intelligences you will find around 24. But Gardner’s latest book on this is called ‘5 Minds for the Future’ … not 1 (as often measured by exams).. we will never, quite rightly, be of one mind… but with 5 we may stand a chance. His ‘5 Minds’ correlate incredibly well with many psychometric testing systems and other educational research.

    These by coincidence also correlate well with the Graduate Attribute categories that we developed as part of the UTS Graduate Attribute Project in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building for assessing student work… with software called REVIEW that was designed to integrate these into student assessment.

    Have a look at the two short videos to explain this and the five categories that relate to Gardner’s five minds:
    For academics:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLIFcwTae7A (3 mins)
    And one animated by a student:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SBZOi5G21A (1.5 mins)

    Reply

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