Saturday, December 5, 2015

Are exams an anachronism?

As exam season for schools and universities around the country draws to a close, I find myself (again) reflecting on the purpose, point and goals of exams. Hence, I have a few questions for Mr Exam. I would appreciate if someone could pass the questions on. Or at least speculate on what his answers might be.

  • Why should students attempt to 'prove' their understanding in an artificial context? What is the point of recalling facts and skills in an artificial environment? Would you go into a meeting or a presentation at work without your notes? You can take notes into a job interview. When solving complex problems at work you are certainly not expected to solve them from memory! We do careful research, we collaborate, we seek feedback, we refine. When I have struggled with particular aspects of a role, I often make notes for myself. I check over them to help me complete the task. I struggle to understand why students should be expected to recall without notes, without their peers, without context and without an authentic purpose? When you have to use recall for your drivers licence test, there is a purpose. What is the point of recall in exams?

  • Do exams value recall or deep thinking? All of the most profound moments of realisation, understanding, application in my life, and I am betting yours, did not happen in exams. It involved deeply thinking in light of new experiences, information, discussion and so forth. Does this mean that exams are not about thinking? Perhaps they are about regurgitating and recalling your thinking? Although, I suspect it might also be about recalling someone else's thinking and not your own.
  • Do exams value efficiency or efficacy, quality? When students are given contrived time limits to recall and apply facts, skills, etc. are we suggesting that it is how fast you are able to do things, not how well? Are we suggesting that learning, Knowledge, skills, capabilities can be packaged into two and three hour blocks?
  • How can we possibly allow for diversity when we are expecting a whole country to sit the same exams? There are piles of research about the euro-centric approach in education, and piles about Maori and Pacifica frequently not 'achieving' at the same rate off pakeha (New Zealand European). This phenomenon is evident in other countries with indigenous peoples too. By making a whole country, district, class, year level sit the same exam, by standardising, are we ignoring cultural capital? Are we suggesting that cultural capital does not matter in academia? Why should all students know and think the same things? Does standardisation ignore and devalue diversity? 

  •  Are exams about equity or equality? All students are expected to write the external 'English exam' or 'Maths exam' at the same time, regardless of what is going on for them in their life. +Ros MacEachern gives a great example from her last school where students were leaving exams early because they were hungry. How many other factors like this is going on? Is that fair?
  • Are we assessing their writing or their understanding? All students, regardless of their strengths, preferences, cultural traditions, personal experiences, family situations and so forth at expected to 'write' exams. They have to give written explanations of their understanding. All teachers know students who can give incredible verbal explanations but struggle to do so in writing. We all learn differently, communicate differently yet exams seem to ignore this? Where do exams make space for different modes of thinking, learning and communicating?
  • How do exams help to build a better future? The value that we attach to exams, explicitly, implicitly and tacitly, are they actually making the world a better place? What values are they instilling in students? What are they teaching students, the community and families to value? What are they teaching about how we assess and individual? What are they teaching about what matters about an individual? Or about a group?

As far as I can tell, exams are not about learning, not about thinking and not about Knowledge. So what is the point? Are they just an an anachronism? A tool from a past age where standardisation was more valued than diversity? Where Knowlege was confined to the pages of linear books rather than the multi-dimensional reality of the real world? If the purpose of exams were about learning and thinking, how would they be different? Are we still making kids and students write exams because coming up with something better has simply been lumped into the too hard basket?