Exams: The silent killer of learning!

At this time of the year, I regularly feel uneasy when I think about how student learning is assessed. Indeed, in higher education in Europe – at least, in Switzerland – the learning experience is usually assessed by a final examination that aims to distinguish good results from bad ones.

Let’s face the truth! The best learning experience can be destroyed by inappropriate assessment methods.

In my opinion, it has become an urgent matter to rethink the way we assess student performance in higher education. Assessment should be designed to foster deep learning and absolutely not as a selective punishment or reward.

In European higher education, teaching, learning and assessing are usually designed as three distinct activities which take place chronologically.

The transmissive teaching model centred on the faculty is still valued, and it emphasizes the material rather than the learning experience. This contributes to maintaining a linear approach of three steps: the faculty member prepares to teach, the teaching takes place and, finally, the teacher assesses the students’ performance. In this teaching and learning context, students are passive and learn less effectively than in a student-centred learning environment. Unfortunately, in a purely transmissive approach centred on the faculty, students develop strategies to regurgitate the material on the final exams. It’s a pity, but it’s perfectly logical for a student to try to do what is expected of her to pass an exam.

Assessment affects learning dramatically and impacts student motivation.

New pedagogical approaches have changed this linear model of assessment and have transformed it into an integrated assessment model which is student-centred. Teaching and learning are articulated around a coherent assessment. This integrated assessment model focuses on deep learning. The way student performance is assessed impacts learning strategies, and if a final examination consists of multiple choice questions, students will apply rote learning and are more likely to regurgitate the material. On the contrary, if student performance consists of a portfolio with various aspects and a final analysis, student work will focus on synthetizing, analyzing and even on critical thinking and writing. This way of assessing promotes the development of crucial skills which can be trained throughout the course.

Assessment should trigger learning and not destroy student motivation !

Dumont, A., Berthiaume, D., (2016) La pédagogie inversée. De Boeck

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