Exams, what are they good for?

Having four exams at the end of every semester was my least favourite part of university. The stress, the anxiety, the cramming…I still occasionally have nightmares that I’m taking an exam, and wake feeling relieved that I never have to take another one, ever.

Photo by Nick Southall, Flickr

Photo by Nick Southall, Flickr

Why do we have exams? The main reasons seem to be convenience and to minimise plagiarism. Yet exams are not completely cheat-proof, as seen in the recent case of the French woman who tried to take her daughter’s exam.

In discussing assessment, Biggs and Tang argue:

How important is the format of assessment? In a word: very. …In preparing for exams, students use memorisation-related activities and for assignments, application-related activities (Tang 1991). (p 226)

And they go on to say that although exams have possible benefits for student learning, such as forcing students to review an entire subject and possibly see it as a whole, there are also several downsides.

One of these downsides is mentioned above – that exams encourage students to memorise. In addition, test anxiety is common and can impact on exam performance. And finally, students don’t usually receive feedback on their exams, other than their grade.

If we want students to take a deep approach to their learning then assessment needs to be constructively aligned with subject learning outcomes. In other words, if you want your students to be able to effectively manage patient airways in a medical emergency, you don’t assess that via a written exam.

Ok, maybe that was an obvious example, but it’s hard to argue that written closed-book exams are an authentic type of assessment for any subject. In the documentary Make me…smart Professor Robert Sternberg says:

In real life there’s no one who gives you a problem and says the answer is a, b, c or d. In real life, you have to figure out what the problem is. Then you have to figure out some ways of solving the problem and then you have to figure out whether any of those solutions are any good.

There are plenty of possible alternatives to exams but I don’t think we’ll be seeing the end of exams anytime soon. For one thing, students taking MOOCs who wish to gain credit for their studies often need to take an invigilated exam.