Have examinations failed?

Earlier this year I wrote a post for this blog in which I wondered whether continuous assessment as the principal form of evaluating student performance could be sustained, given budgetary constraints and the problems of plagiarism. But even as I was thinking such thoughts, elsewhere the opposite trend was being mooted: in Harvard University (according to Harvard Magazine) the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has adopted a motion that provides that unless the lecturer declares otherwise well in advance, courses will no longer have end-of-term exams. The current position in Harvard is that only 258 out of 1,137 courses still have any final exams, and it is likely that this number will now drop much further.

So what are we to conclude?  Probably that the whole framework of assessing academic programmes needs to be re-considered. On the one hand, current pedagogical thinking suggests that continuous assessment may be the most appropriate way of evaluating students; on the other hand, continuous assessment is so labour intensive that in the current funding environment it may no longer be affordable. The problem right now is that the strategic reviews of higher education are focusing on organisational structure, but are largely neglecting vital pedagogical issues such as this.

We are no longer sure what exactly it is that we need to assess, and how we should assess it. Answering that question is much more important than wondering about whether our universities and colleges should merge. But nobody is really addressing it.

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5 Comments on “Have examinations failed?”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    Perhaps nobody is addressing it at the national policy level, though HETAC have recently produced a comprehensive document on the regulatory aspects of assessment in the non-university sector which does contain some useful indicators of current thinking in relation to assessment.

    In terms of the practices of teaching and learning, numerous alternatives to the ‘traditional’ examination system are being explored, through approaches such as reflexive writing, problem-based learning, group projects, action research, case studies and scenarios, you name it. It may be that the systems and protocols to deal with such approaches are only more slowly being developed, or that ‘higher status’ programmes and/or institutions are clinging more tenaciously to exam-based assessment. For that reason it is great to see the highest-status university in the US, if not the world, making the decision you have reported.

    The challenge posed by digital technology and universal access to information, perhaps paralleled only by the development of the printing press (or, as I have seen recently remarked, the invention of the alphabet) has the potential to render the usual systems of assessment redundant. There is so much that is ritualistic about the ‘exams’ process and, like all ritual, it has much to do with power, control and exclusion/inclusion.

    So much is (literally) invested in the current system that it can be hard to remind ourselves that fundamentally assessment should be about the ability of one person or group to communicate to another that they have changed how they may think and/or act in relation to a particular body of knowledge. We all know that a written exam would be a potentially disastrous way to assess a pilot’s understanding of how to land a plane in a storm, so why do we think that such a form of assessment is of any use outside of a narrow range of specific skills? As far as I see it exams are good for testing: a) short-term memory and b) the ability to do exams. I would be interested to know what else they are useful for.

  2. Al Says:

    It is a tough one…
    Easy to test knowledge
    Harder to test skill…

    Especially when skills can take years of an apprenticeship of practise.

    It heats my ears everytime I hear the word ‘upskill’ being used in a sense that gives little acknowledgement to ‘depth’ rather than ‘up’!

    We seem to ignore skills, with an implicit valorisation of ‘exam skills’ as the only thing that matters, and to an extent it does, because of the exams…

    Skills can only be developed through practise, also known as training. That is then nettle higher education must grasp!

  3. iainmacl Says:

    To be fair there’s considerable debate about this at Harvard and the reasons for the change are not largely on educational grounds per se. According to some, a significant reason is budget cuts and Lecturers were no longer being provided with funds to provide invigilators at the exams they set.

    For more chat on this: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Bye-Bye-Blue-Books-/25236/

    • Perry Share Says:

      A commenter on that Chronicle article argues that:

      ‘the lack of final exams is just one symptom of the tenured radical faculty’s larger abdication of intellectual responsibility … Since they aren’t that proud of Western civilization, they can’t agree that there is anything in particular that students need to know’.

      Now we know! I love the lunacy of the US ‘culture wars’.

  4. cormac Says:

    I’d like to know more about how they conduct their continuous harassment, sorry, assessment. What are the safeguards and can we replicate them here?


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