engaging minds in the internet age

Exams vs. Assessment

with 3 comments

This post looks at some observations of students undertaking exams and how we can use at assessments to make them worthwhile for us and our students.

It’s exam time for seniors at our school.  We have these exams to give students the opportunity to get used to exam conditions, training them to sit still for long periods of time, and we also have them to perform internal assessments which are too long or difficult to have during regular term/class time.

With several hundred students crammed into our school gym, all working steadily enough not to require my 100% attention (I’ve trained my instincts to pick up raised hands or sneaky cheating with little direct attention – just in case any disapproving colleagues read this), I jotted down these observations:

  • Students panicking about unimportant details such as the correct teacher code
  • Students missing the obvious solution (write the name in full – even a poor attempt will get the paper to the right teacher)
  • Students giving up on something too hard and leaving the teacher space blank which is the worst case scenario really
  • Students bringing a single writing device (which inevitably failed in the cooler than usual temperatures)
  • Students asking, despite the obvious clues, whether they are allowed to write on the papers
  • Students doing nothing at all before leaving as early as they were allowed
  • Teachers getting rather excited and engaging thoroughly with their role

I also had the following thoughts:

  • Is this a fair test of student learning?
  • This doesn’t seem much like “real life” – more like an attempt to control a bunch of factors/students in order to drag information out of them.  Not too different from some interrogation techniques
  • What a huge waste of paper!
  • Should we assess “common sense” as a prerequisite for courses?
  • Do our schools and societal systems tend to quash common sense and lead to these issues?
  • Is this a worthwhile use of time?
  • Are these students being permanently harmed through this experience?
  • Do I want my daughter to experience this when she’s older?

As you can see, I have a busy brain. Especially when there’s not a lot to occupy my mind in the empty exam supervision hours…

So those are exams, but what about assessment?  Is there a difference?

First off, I don’t think exams like this are useful for anyone.  Definitely not for the majority of students sitting them.  Assessment should be as close to real life as possible, because that’s what they are meant to be a measure of.  Aren’t they?  Isn’t an exam result a recommendation of academic ability to future employers or academic institutions?  Exams are so artificial compared to “real life” that I can’t see how they are a measure of anything except perhaps a peculiar sort of mental toughness – expressed in the ability to suppress strong and potentially debilitating emotions such as fear.

Okay, so I’m a bit angry about exams.  I’m a practical electronics and physics teacher who prefers to have a conversation with students to develop their mental models and ability to apply them in unfamiliar circumstances.  Even so, if exams are useful, it is to get nothing more than a general measure of group achievement and nothing more.

General because they are not accurate enough, as anyone who has ever tried to mark an essay will tell you.

Group (and not individual) because individuals can have bad days, and are strongly influenced by many changeable factors – it’s just not fair to judge a student by a single performance on a test which is not even a reflection of the real life ability to problem solve, communicate, etc.

Let’s face it, exam halls are a left over from an industrial model of education which is rapidly slipping away (I feel the urge to go and watch Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms RSA Animate talk again!)

So assessment should match real life.  Education should match real life – or at least build student’s ability to cope with real life.  In real life the test comes first and you learn how to pass because if you don’t you can’t drive to your friend’s house for social events, or kick a rugby ball over the cross bar and between the posts, or form a relationship with a potential partner, or survive in the aftermath of a disaster, or have a nutritious meal… the list goes on.  Everything in life is a test and assessment should be a gauge (not an igage!) of how well you are able to deal with, and help others deal with, all of these things.

Imagine if assessment was all about how much you can contribute to society.  Imagine if every single assessment was framed in that way, with a generous dose of your personal purpose and fulfilment levels thrown into the mix?  Seriously.  What would it be like?  Teachers would set meaningful “tests” and students would be trying their hardest to pass them.  Society would thrive with everyone understanding at least some of their purpose as a member of the whole group and we wouldn’t need artificial systems to “manage” most people because they were on the right path all the way.

I can go on, but that’s enough mental stimulation from me for you for now.  It’s your turn to stimulate your own brain.  Fire away!



Written by watchsamfly

June 6, 2012 at 05:12

3 Responses

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  1. Spot on Sam. I feel fortunate to teach a practical subject with no exams. Although I have certainly sat my share of meaningless exams involving mindless regurgitation of information stored for short term use. Maybe if we cram a few more students into your class, and give you some more PD, you will grow to love exams more 😉

    Simon Ward

    June 6, 2012 at 08:20

  2. Appreciate the hat-tip and reference – humbled to be featured in this post which rattles the cage of a worthy discussion…


    June 6, 2012 at 11:28

    • My pleasure! I appreciate your significant contribution to NZ education.


      June 7, 2012 at 17:40

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