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.

Diving under the surface


Photo by Craig Bennett, Flickr

When I was young, I spent hours looking at the stars and studying charts of the night sky. I collected snails after a rainstorm and put them in box with leaves for a few days (I could hear them munching at night). I looked in every rock pool. I loved growing things in the veggie patch. I loved books and TV shows on nature and wanted to grow up to be David Attenborough. I was deeply immersed in learning about the world around me.

Yet I took a superficial approach to learning through many of my school and university years. Why? The workload, the pressures of balancing study with work and life, the way subjects were taught, and the way exams seemed to require and reward memorisation and regurgitation of facts. I’d usually forget the details of each subject soon after each exam and now, years later, I struggle to recall the basics of many of the subjects I studied (organic chemistry, anyone?).

Those teaching in higher education have probably come across the idea of deep and surface approaches to learning. It’s a key concept that we teach in our short program for new academics at the University of Sydney, and expand upon in our year-long Graduate Certificate.

And we’re not alone; Peter Kandlbinder and Tai Peseta’s survey of 46 institutions found that it was one of five key concepts about higher education learning and teaching taught in such programs. Known as the student approaches to learning theory, the concept was introduced by Ference Marton and Roger Säljö in 1976.

Marton and Säljö investigated how students read a particular text, and found two different approaches to learning. Students taking a deep approach wanted to understand the meaning of the text, while students taking a surface approach focussed on memorising the text in order to reproduce it later.

Many researchers have since explored students’ approaches to learning. Paul Ramsden, John Biggs and Catherine Tang, among others, have argued that students adopt different approaches to learning in different subjects and tasks, depending on many factors including past experiences, motivation, and perceptions of the learning environment (such as workload).

Mike Prosser and Keith Trigwell found a relationship between students’ perceptions of their learning environment, the approach they took as a result (deep or surface) and their subsequent results. That is, students who took a deep approach achieved better results than students who took a surface approach – but noted that the relationship only holds if the assessment measures and rewards deep approaches.

So what are the critiques of the student approaches to learning theory? Apart from the fact that this signature concept was developed by ‘old men’, Tamsin Haggis has argued that:

  1. Student approaches to learning have become reified such that some people label students as either deep or surface learners (see for example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMZA80XpP6Y).
  2. Surface approaches to learning can lead to successful results.
  3. The student approaches to learning theory doesn’t work in all disciplinary or cultural contexts.
  4. There has been limited developed of the theory.

Delia Marshall and Jennifer Case responded to these concerns, saying don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ (p258). They explain how the student approaches to learning theory has been developed and critiqued, though they agree with Haggis that there needs to be more critical engagement with the theory. Marshall and Case contend that student approaches to learning is a:

‘powerful framework with which to make sense of aspects of student learning situations….Rather than discarding the theory altogether, we would argue that other perspectives have the potential to enrich and extend it…’ (p263)

These other perspectives include academic literacies, sociocultural theories, discourse analysis and network theories…see Catherine Manathunga’s paper for more ideas or add your own ideas below.