A thorough examination please

June 21, 1996

With regards to David Abel (THES, June 14), it is not agreed that traditional exams "are at least one of the more objective forms of assessment". There is considerable evidence that traditional exams are far from objective, if by objective we mean that the grades are reproducible, meaningful and essentially independent of the marker.

It is certainly true that traditional exams test the individual under conditions of exam stress. No one can argue that testing the individual is wrong, but I must point out that there is more than one form of stress, and that the ability to cope with exam stress is not necessarily the best predictor of ability to cope with the stress of personal confrontation or life-and-death situations.

I would certainly like my emergency room doctor or my pilot to have more than a first or upper second on the basis of written exams as a qualification. In fact, I am certain that practical development (and testing) of such skills is crucial to training in such careers.

Furthermore, I am not convinced that the ability to organise the mind for written responses under time pressure is the ability I need in my general practitioner or lawyer. I would much prefer them to be able to listen and communicate with me effectively, and to take as much as time as is required to make the appropriate judgements.

I would also like to point out that "requires three weeks to revise before venturing an answer" sounds much more like the traditional exam situation than any form of continuous assessment. And what final examinations are students subjected to "without notice"?

Yes, we must stop this "pernicious nonsense". There are faults and limitations in other forms of assessment, but let us not pretend or imagine that traditional exams represent some sort of ideal, or reflect life (either as it is, or as we would wish it to be) in any respect other than being occasionally arbitrary and capricious.

James A. Gotaas

Senior lecturer in applied physics

University of Central Lancashire

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