Do exams hinder student learning?

October 29, 1999

NO.

Assessment, when effectively designed and fit for purpose, will greatly help the development of a learning society because:

It enables students to get the measure of their own achievement and the self-knowledge they gain from being assessed helps them develop the skills to continue as lifelong learners

It can be a means of motivating students to engage in the learning process (conversely, no assessment at all can be pretty demotivating if students feel unsupported and lack direction)

It helps students make sensible choices about options and directions for further study within a learning society

Assessment outcomes also enable society to be assured of students' fitness to practice in a range of professions.

To be really effective in achieving these aims, however, assessment must be an integral part of the curriculum, not an afterthought tacked on the end of the design process. We need to ensure that appropriate decisions are made about the methods and approaches used, when assessment should take place and who should undertake it.

To maximise learning potential, I would argue that students need to be closely involved in the whole process, ideally having some input into the formulation of the assessment criteria and having a clear brief about what they are expected to do, so that they do not have to try to guess what is required of them.

Strategies that incorporate some level of student involvement through self and peer assessment, tend to make for students who are better able to continue learning after formal tuition has ceased because they have developed better powers of self-evaluation.

Assessment is a constructive element of the student learning process when it:

Relates closely to the learning outcomes of a course of study

Stimulates deep engagement with the learning process rather than excessive reliance on memorisation and recall

Comprises meaningful tasks that bring the learning to life

Is manageable for both staff and students

Encourages students to develop generic skills they can use for the rest of their lives

Is perceived by students to be fair, authentic and related to important aspects of the curriculum rather than concentrating on easy-to-measure trivia.

Encourages each student, at whatever ability level, to achieve maximum individual potential.

There are no quick fixes in higher education curriculum design. We can only expect assessment to be a positive foundation of the learning society if we devise assessment strategies that are based on a clearly thought-through rationale, rather than relying on what we have always done or what is easy to do. I am hopeful that we are well on the way.

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