Sophistry isn't very clever

December 23, 2005

Are tricky examination questions illegal? Phil Race and James Tooley debate

"Academic judgment" can now be challenged. We have always known that exam questions should be fair and assessments should be reliable and valid. But until recently we were obliged only to try to follow the relevant Quality Assurance Agency codes of practice. Now we are legally required by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act to ensure that assessment processes and instruments do not prevent students with identifiable special needs from demonstrating they have achieved the learning outcomes associated with courses. In other words, if the poor design of exam questions causes students to underperform, they can take legal action.

Despite the time and energy we spend on trying to get assessment right, it too often remains the weak link in higher education.

We depend too much on time-constrained unseen written exams, with all their failings. Do we really want to measure how well students can play this particular game, and award them degrees accordingly? One of the many problems with exams is that it is not always clear from the printed words on the paper exactly what questions mean - and this can particularly affect students working in English as a second language, who may not see through some subtleties.

Even though higher education is no longer just for the elite, some academics continue to use tricks from past ages, including writing exams in which part of the challenge is to work out what the question means before answering it. Too often, academics applaud this approach for being "clever", claiming that "assessment is to sort out the sheep from the goats, and understanding the question's true meaning is part of that".

"Nice one," their colleagues will say. "The clever students will work it out." But we do not include "cleverness" among the intended learning outcomes, which are the published goals of higher education.

The printed question that appears on the exam paper does not come with tone of voice, inflection, emphasis on particular words, subtleties of pace of speech - let alone all the other parts of body language such as facial expression, eye contact and gesture that constitute normal human communication.

We may indeed strive to use all of these in our lecture rooms. But in the exam hall precise words are all important. The 2001 Act requires that we make "reasonable adjustments" to all aspects of higher education. Surely this includes adjusting exam questions carefully so that there are no unnecessary hurdles for students with dyslexia - or indeed students with language difficulties that prevent them "seeing through" tricky questions and working out exactly what is required of them.

Good practice for students with particular needs so often turns out to be good practice for all. It is time to stop playing exam games with students.

We must adjust the wording of our questions repeatedly until it is clear to all candidates what we really seek from them.

Phil Race is a professor and part-time senior academic staff development officer at Leeds University and the author of Making Learning Happen , published by Sage, £19.99.

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