Do exams hinder student learning?

October 29, 1999


Normal assessment practice is a well- intended but bureaucratically driven attempt to assure the quality of education. It is characterised by standardised learning objectives, assignments and tests, and by regulating the activities of students and teachers.

Students gather in an exam room where they demonstrate their knowledge by answering a number of questions. They may spend perhaps as little as three minutes and rarely more than 30 or 40 minutes on each. They are not allowed to consult normal resources, such as books, computers, colleagues or other experts. Teachers check off the students' answers, acting as little more than clerks. They are sometimes replaced by computers.

How does this practice erode both teaching and learning?

First, the test culture freezes the content taught. Formalised objectives and question banks represent huge investments and thus need to be used over a number of years.

However, the kinds of knowledge and skills required by graduates change much more rapidly. The ability to solve mathematical problems is a good example.

Only five years ago, a lot of practice was needed to master complex skills and solve problems which specialised software now solves in a few seconds.

It is vitally important that university teachers keep the content of courses in line with the state of scientific knowledge and prepare students for the real demands of professional work. University teachers should always be looking forward, but assessment practice forces them to look backwards.

Second, assessment often measures the wrong kinds of knowledge and capability.

Modern society needs people who can cope with challenges of a creative, strategic and probabilistic nature.

Assessment practice has failed to keep up with this reality. Why are students not invited to work on more demanding and sustained assignments? Why are they not allowed to use standard resources while being tested?

The assessment stakes are very high for students since their performance over a few hours can be a determining factor in important life chances. This shapes students into individuals who are afraid to fail, who avoid risks. Modern society needs innovative, adaptive and flexible risk-takers. Assessment practice hinders the shaping of the personal skills and values so badly needed in tomorrow's global information society.

George Moerkerke is an education development specialist at the Open University of the Netherlands, Heerlen.

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