Do exams kill learning?

Fears over GCSE exam shake up...File photo dated 10/6/2005 of school exams in progess. Teenagers will no longer be required to sit all their GCSEs after two years of study, under radical plans to break courses into 'bite sized' modules. PA wire

Let’s face it: extraordinary teaching can be annihilated by inadequate or simplistic final exams. It must be said that students’ learning experience is defined by how learning outcomes are measured and assessed. ‘From our students’ point of view, assessment always defines the actual curriculum’ (Ramsden 1993). Exams affect learning in a silent and devious ways as it has an inescapable knock-on effect on student’s learning experience motivation. For instance, it is the case when motivated faculty teach team-based learning in their classroom but  final examination, thought and prepared by others, consists of multiple choice questions. Such an obvious incoherence affects students’ learning experience in the worst way as there’s no interest or added-value in engaging in deep learning team-based activitites.

However, it’s perfectly understandable that students think and act in terms of strategic learning studying techniques and ways to enhance his or her learning and try to optimize chances of passing exams and attaining successful curricula. Winning strategies drive students’ learning experience whether we like it or not.

As a consequence, it becomes urgent matter to rethink exams as a trigger for deep learning taking into consideration the three following pieces of advice:

  • Assessment and exams must be defined by learning outcomes. It’s essential to have in mind the backwash effect and thus to identify every step starting from the expected learning outcomes in order to define every step up to the very beginning of the first day of teaching. This allows faculty to clarify and explain to students  assessment criteria and final formative assessment. Research demonstrates students’ success rate increases when students understand in what way learning outcomes make sense for future professional life. Clarifying learning outcomes and identifying assessment criteria make a meaningful difference in student’s motivation to engage in deep learning activities.
  • Assessment and examinations as real life experimentation. Let’s face it: exams taking place in transformed gymnastics places in which every student is isolated belong to a bygone age. Examinations questions on surrealistic and hypothetical situations which never occur in real life belong to a bygone age as well. It’s time to think exams as a mirror of real life situations and problems in order to let students demonstrate their skills in handling and solving realistic complex situations or problems.
  • Assessment and examinations as formative experience. In my opinion, we should integrate internet access and any source of information during exams. Faculty must think of formative assessment as a range of formal and informal procedures during the learning process in order to measure students’ capability of handling and solving complex situations, thus demonstrating learning outcomes attainment. Regurgitation is no more a viable option in my point-of-view!

Formative assessment occurs when assessment is one component of the entire system of teaching and learning, in which all components interact with each other in order to foster deep learning and promote meaningful learning experience.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London ; New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

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