As we draw closer to exam season, it is only natural that one takes a step back to consider if exams should even exist. There are certainly alternatives and given the lack of knowledge I have on any of my subjects, it is a good time as ever to reflect on the system that we have currently.
There are some notably redeeming features of exam testing. All the students taking the exam answer the same questions and are given the same amount of time to answer them. The strict rules of examination venues ensure a degree of equality. The level playing field allows the institution to make considered evaluations on an individual’s competency and performance by means of standardised testing and taking into account the overall performance of all students.
Exams may even help in the long-run. They are said to reinforce useful, real-life learning skills such as time management and dealing with stressful situations, a sort of tough love kind of learning that hopefully will pay off.
Yet, there are obvious problems with exams as a form of assessment. They often have a lot riding on a single exam. For all my subjects this semester, a single exam constitutes 50 per cent of my final module grade. Whilst I can sort of (emphasis on sort-of) handle this fact, it is nevertheless a deeply uneasy thought. Is it fair that one exam will be used to represent 50 per cent of my learning this entire semester? Three days, three exams all within a short space of each other, a sort of stress-filled pressure point in my semester. Exam success appears to ride on memorisation, individual stamina and the ability to cope with stress as opposed to academic competency.
As a form of testing, the endgame of a year or semester’s worth of learning can also limit development. Exam testing has shown to hinder creativity and original thinking in individuals, therefore favouring those in more non-creative disciplines. Regurgitating information does little to enrich the individual.
Whilst stress levels certainly peak during the gruelling 2/3-hour exam itself, the journey to our seat in the sports hall is far from a pleasant stroll either. The long days, incessant highlighting and stacks upon stacks of revision cards that I will inevitably misplace; the entire revision process is a painful slog.
So what are the alternatives? Shorter testing throughout the semester is an option. My Social Anthropology module last semester was all coursework. There were obvious benefits to this: I could work at my own pace and my essays are often better and more coherent when I’m not under immediate time pressure.
But non-exam forms of assessment also have their limitations and own problems. Essay-only testing can engender inequalities too. Whilst prohibited, being able to do coursework outside controlled spaces may lead to some individuals benefitting due to external help. Similarly, there are limitations to other forms of assessments such as group presentations and class participation as they often favour those more extroverted and confident in public settings.
In short, despite the blaring limitations of exams and how unrepresentative they can be, there are equally disadvantages to all forms of assessment. Different styles benefit different types of learners. So as much of a bitter pill this is to swallow, exams are useful and have qualities that justify their position as the most common form of assessment.