Traditional examinations: the best form of assessment?

For most students, the exam period is the most stressful point of the academic year. The exam itself is the most obvious manifestation of this stress, but the rush to the library, the pressure of memorising big books and the long nights of studying to feel even slightly prepared are also hard. Throughout our education, exams are the main form of assessment, with other smaller tests or essays being used to build up your grade in preparation for exams. Yet with many students’ grades suffering due to exam related pressures, are exams really the best method of assessment for students? And if not, what is our alternative?

Exams are typically seen as a good way of testing course knowledge, as they require every member of the course to learn the same things and answer the same, or at least similar, questions. This ensures a uniform means of assessing multiple individuals, with all students being examined on the same basic level of difficulty and understanding. Exams therefore provide an even playing field: everyone is assessed on the same thing in the same amount of time. That everyone goes through the same exam means that the only disparity in grades would be down to ability or time spent revising, which the University of Edinburgh counters by providing dedicated study time before the Christmas and Summer exam period, thus allowing all to revise, regardless of other course commitments. While very few people enjoy exams, they have become the central form of assessment for a reason. As a comprehensive test of knowledge exams are a very good method.

There is still the question, however, as to whether there are better methods of assessment. An issue for exams is that they differ for each course, thus so do the marking criteria. Science students can get up to 100 per cent in an exam whilst for essay-based subjects, such as history, getting above 70 is doing very well. This therefore makes it hard to adequately compare students of different disciplines. Furthermore, the exam timetable can be worse for different people, with some students having all of their exams within a few days whilst others have larger gaps between, thereby not necessarily giving them as much time to revise as others. The exam timetable also puts a lot of pressure on a single point in the students’ term, further disadvantaging those who can’t work well under stress. Moreover, exams are also limited as a form of assessment, largely testing what students have memorised under pressure, as opposed to ensuring the knowledge is more permanently in place.

Yet, if exams are not the best form of assessment, what could take their place? While essays and minor tests are already present for most subjects, these could be extended throughout the term. With an increased number of smaller essays or assessments workload would be more evenly spread throughout the university year rather than increasing massively during the exam period. Yet this wouldn’t necessarily adequately assess a large enough proportion of content. Presentations, group discussion tasks and tutorial participation are also already a part of assessment for many, so these could be used to provide a larger proportion of the final grade. However these also present the issue that many are uncomfortable with public speaking, thus this would favour those more extroverted and confident. Finally, forum board posts, along with participation grades, show a weekly development of knowledge, which could further be a more reliable way of testing students. None of these would necessarily be a positive change if done alone, yet a  combination of these through the year could both give a clearer image of student knowledge and reduce the disadvantage some face during the exam period.

Ultimately, any form of assessment used will benefit some over others. While exams are a standard test of knowledge, the pressure of the exam period hits many students hard. However, other potential methods of assessment also have their weaknesses: some students can’t write as fluently as others in essays or forum posts, some find it difficult to participate fully in tutorials, and some simply find assessment easier than others ever could. No assessment will ever be truly perfect, but perhaps the university should be doing more to ensure that all students can perform to the best of their ability.

 

Image: Ryan McGilchrist via Wikimedia 

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