Can we assess without examining?

Some time ago in this blog I asked some questions about the way in which we examine and assess students. Without here wanting to re-open all of that, one issue that has more recently caught my attention is the following. One Irish university (I won’t say which, as I don’t mean this to be partisan in any way) has decided not to examine students on modules they undertake in the first semester of every academic year. What I am trying to work out is whether this affects the integrity of the modules in question – must there be a problem with these modules, as they will not be treated the same way as those in the second semester? What would be the pedagogical argument (as distinct from the administrative or organisational one) for such an arrangement?

I fear that we may have a more general systemic problem with assessing and examining in our programmes, from the appropriate mix of assessment methods to the claim that we are dumbing down as regards the results. I suspect that this needs to be discussed more, and more openly.

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11 Comments on “Can we assess without examining?”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    I find that astonishing. Why would any student bother to put in the same amount of effort in first-semester modules, in that case? Why even attend lectures, let alone complete any set assignments, if they don’t count?

    (Though I suppose I did complete set assignments in my undergraduate studies, even though they didn’t count at all towards my end-of-year or degree mark, more’s the pity – I was always better at essays than exams).

    Still, students these days, probably partly due to the greater pressures on them (since many more need to work to fund themselves through university), seem to be far more instrumental in their approach to work than my generation was. If it doesn’t count, they don’t put the effort in. I do wonder how this unnamed university plans to deal with that.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I know which university you mean, because I recently had a conversation with a member of staff there about this. To be fair, they are ‘examining’ those modules, just not using formal exams to do so: first semester modules are to be assessed entirely by essays, presentations, and other forms of continuous assessment.

    Given the limitations of exams, and the fact that many of us examine modules entirely using continuous assessment, their decision isn’t quite as dramatic as your post suggests!


    • Yes, Jilly, I was aware of that. My problem with this is that you cannot really apply an assessment model to a subject solely on the basis of when in the year it is taught. There may be arguments for having something examined entirely by continuous assessment, but that it happens to be taught before Christmas isn’t one of them.

      • Wendymr Says:

        If that’s what you meant – that these modules would be assessed through other forms such as essays rather than having a written examination, as opposed to no assessment at all as your initial post seemed to imply – then I’m not convinced there’s any issue of concern. The degree programme I ran was equally balanced between continuous assessment alone and essay + examination; as long as 50% of modules in any academic year had an examination, we could do what we liked with the rest.

        We tracked statistics both within cohorts and year-on-year, and did not notice any appreciable difference in performance between continuously-assessed modules and those with examinations. There’ll always be the occasional student who chokes in an exam setting, or someone who is ill or otherwise incapacitated on the day (and that’s what appeal boards are for), but in general there was no evidence to say that continually-assessed modules were easier – or harder, for that matter.

        I wonder if the choice of the autumn semester for continually-assessed modules rests on sheer timing, in that examinations generally have to take place in January, leaving a gap during which many students go home and lecturers are also not around?

  3. kevin denny Says:

    I have long felt that assessment is a weak spot in university education. Probably because academics are not that interested in it for the most part and the students aren’t that keen on it either. A particular problem is that our students have been through the Leaving Certificate with a very distinct assessment process which rewards rote learning so they struggle with exams which require them to think independently.
    Not assessing modules does seem bizarre (even GUBU). I wonder what the logic is? There is no question that students will respond to this. A savvy tax-payer might think: “these guys don’t pay for their education, they are not examined on their courses…I smell a rat”.

    So its not DCU or UCD. I don’t think TCD is modularized..ah come on, tell us who it is.


  4. How about those horrible Universities that on occasion not only do not examine students, but make their entire first year pass/fail!

    Shame on your MIT! Shame on you Caltech!

    P.S. It may surprise you what happens when you treat your students like adults and raise the bar higher than their ankles.

  5. Steve Says:

    One of my lecturers last year believed exams were essentially testing how fast a person could write. So he gave us the questions beforehand and said as a result we’d be marked much harder. Overall the amount of fails to firsts was comparable to other modules. I don’t know if it was a useful approach. Either way, I’d very much prefer continuous assessment to exams.

    A friend who just started first year pointed out that he feels he’s cramming a load of stuff for an exam and he’s not going to remember most of it after the fact. From his point of view it’s stupid. It’s like they’re examining our short term memories, not whether we understand the material or can apply what we learn to whatever else. We both come from an IT background and coincidentally both ended up studying Arts subjects like History and Philosophy etc. and we’re doing these types of subjects out of interest, not simply because we want a degree. But there’s (for us) an undeniable feeling that the system in place leads to people not having to remember things past the end of a particular exam. Very little of what I learned last year is remotely applicable to this year. Maybe that’s a problem with modularisation? I think it’s a flawed system, but it’s hard to pinpoint what can be changed/improved.

    • kevin denny Says:

      The trouble is, Steve, every system is flawed. Modularisation was introduced in UCD because of problems with the old system. I think those problems were real but the new system, which is in many ways an improvement, brings its own hazards.
      The emphasis on memory in exams is a serious problem. To some extent its a numbers game. With a small number of students you can devise assessments which would tap into students understanding, their acquisition of skills, their creativity etc. The trouble is they are terribly labour intensive: I have been teaching a module with about 1,200 students each year and they are marked entirely on Multiple Choice Questions. Its not ideal but the only feasible option.
      In my own area, Economics, what you do in 1st year is very relevant to 2nd year and so on. A problem is that students have been brought up to believe that exams are simply hurdles to be got over – and who can blame them? – so there is often little retention from one year to the next.


  6. Wendy, I think the point I am trying to make is this: there are all sorts of good pedagogical arguments for using either examinations, or continuous assessment, or a mix of both to assess performance in modules. However, the choice of method should be based on careful consideration of the substantive and pedagogical arguments. But that breaks down if the only reason for continuous assessment in module A is that it is taught before Christmas, and for examinations in module B that it is taught in the spring.

    • Wendymr Says:

      I see that point, and I think I could see a rationale for that decision if it were based on the fact that semester – and therefore revision for exams – is interrupted by the Christmas break. Certainly, in modules assessed by examination, our students always found that disruptive.

  7. Perry Share Says:

    I can see the logic of F’s question – why treat semester 1 modules in one way, semester 2 in another. It is likely not to be a pedagogical motive – rather to do with the considerable expense and hassle of organising two sets of formal examinations per year, plus our perennial dilemma in Ireland as to whether we should have sem 1 exams before or after Christmas.

    On the broader question of exams vs assessment, I can’t believe that this is a question that even needs to be debated! As a student at TCD, even in 1979, we had a year without exams – ironically enough the only year I failed!

    In my teaching in Australia it was far more normal to assess through continuous assessment and in my own department at IT Sligo continuous assessment is the norm in probably 75% of modules. It is not something that is really debated – lecturers choose the mode of assessment that is appropriate for measuring the learning outcome for the module. In most cases this is likely to be a research project, essay, presentation, case study, practical exercise or problem-based learning scenario, rather than en exam designed to test short-term memory.

    A much more pressing problem, and one that we debate with regularity, is the merits of group-based versus individual assessment – one that I suspect has yet to exercise too many minds in our universities, though I’d be glad to be proven wrong.


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