Exams consider harmful?

A central tool in education is the examination. A controlled measure of your knowledge on a given subject. After a period of teaching and learning a sumative assessment with gives you a number to indicate to future employers or educators how good you are at X. This sounds at the best a little unfair, and simplistic. For a start how good an understanding will employers have of what exactly X is?

Exam conditions are an interesting idea in the this connected age. Knowledge is literally at your fingertips, understanding may however be more elusive. In a recent lecture talking about problem solving techniques for design (hierarchical decomposition). To an unresponsive audience I asked “if asked to design a mobile phone what would you do?” After a short silence the response “google: how to design a mobile phone” which raised a few smiles. You may be thinking this is the beginning of the end, but I think there is something in this.

It is hard to be creative in a vacuum, and the web offers a rich soup of potential inspiration and knowledge. We need to equip our students with the savvy to use this fantastic tool, and to cope with immediate knowledge. You need to be inducted into a library and learn the craft of finding appropriate knowledge, develop understanding of it and then apply it in context. The same is true of the web, thought there is an additional layer of skill that must be present.

For a book to be present in a library some one has written it, this is likely a drawn out process with lost of refinement and input form others. A publisher must have thought there was a demand for something of this sort and quality and decided to publish it. Finally the library must have made a decision to acquire the book possibly as a result of the advice of academics involved in teaching the subject. There are non of these filtering mechanisms on the web, and there are simple strategies to have confidence on what you find on the web (but that is another story).

Consumption and application of knowledge is creative and important but in my courses anyway assessed elsewhere. I have just finished writing this years degree exam and use this post to reflect on some of the design decision I have made and hopefully provoke your ideas on exam authoring.

This year I have made a few designs decisions which I hope give students a better opportunity to demonstrate competence. I have moved from 4×25 marks to 10 x 10 marks question structure. These fit the various topic areas better and rely less on being couched in a particular example. Making questions stand on there own and reduce dependancies between questions has been another change. One absent answer can effectively remove any chance of any dependant question being answered. The final technique is a conscious effort to supply hooks. An example would be “describe two types of fruit” on the course we may only discuss oranges and apples but there are many types of fruit and student knows about. By not identifying the specific fruit I’m interested in thus offering an accurate but incorrect answer the question is lost. I have chosen to phrase this type of question as follows: “Describe the following items of fruit: apples and oranges”. Identifying the thing I want you to explain is a small part of the question its the understanding demonstrable through description that is more important. It is also likely if a student can offer a good description they are familiar with the term. In Blooms terms this is a higher order activity.

I find exams a valuable assessment tool in HE. If we are going to award a given course to a student we must be confident they have competence in the areas covered by the course. There is a need for considered design and moderation (which is where my papers are off to now) in the authoring of exams. It is interesting that an emerging distinction in the huge upsurge of MOOCs is whether there is any accredited certification and ofter invigilated exams are part of this.

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