Ashley Dale

Postgraduate Researcher,

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Examinations vs. Coursework in Education?

In my personal experience, I have noticed classes becoming more exam based than coursework/project-based.

I feel project-based learning is far more effective than exam-based learning - you actually apply what is taught in classes to problems, hence require understanding rather than regurgitate a memorised syllabus on paper in a couple of hours and forget it a week later. Of course in the latter, people shouldn't apply themselves like that - but the majority do.

Yes, exams are less time consuming to mark, but is that the only reason? We're too lazy .. too cheap to teach the next generation effectively?


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    Aug 7 2011: Simone - some good point I hadn't considered, thanks. But in your last paragraph you argue that you'd rather have more people go through higher-education with a poorer grasp on their subject, than have less go through with a better grasp? In my experience, few graduates actually go on to carry out a career in their undergraduate course. Are we looking to have lower-quality higher education with an apparently over-qualified work force, or do we want to produce a better proportioned number of graduates with a better education? I don't know what it's like in Germany, but in the UK it feels like a sausage factory.

    Marek - where do you get this argument regards only being able to concentrate on a small proportion of the syllabus if putting weight on the courswork route?

    James - I've studied at more education establishments than I can count on both of my hands (even in California) .. they're all the same. Don't get me wrong, I think teaching is one of the most commendable career choices out there, and the opener is not an attack on the teachers in the classrooms, it's an attack on the system. I just feel this bismarckian model of schooling adopted by most of the world is very dated, and is laying waste to kids curiosity out of a fear of being wrong. To fulfil the syllabus we so quickly focus on the details solving "this equation", it makes learning intimidating.

    Bob - agreed.
  • Aug 7 2011: Tests, at one time, were used as a tool to gauge the understanding that students had of a subject. Now tests are used as a way to force students to learn via threat of penalty. This is a flawed way of teaching and is doing a disservice to all students.

    Tests may work to force short-term retention learning but long-term retention is abysmal.
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    Aug 5 2011: As a teacher in the US system I strive to make course work interesting for the students. During the course projects can be either a mini project of one class meeting or week long project during multiple class meetings. The exams I give cover both the course work from lecture notes and reading materials and they cover materials learned from projects that the students complete in class and make presentations of to the class. I also, favor quarterly reflection papers where a student can reflect of the materials covered, a single part of the material covered, or suggest a side issue of the material covered that they might find interesting.
    Yes people do cram for the exam and keep the materials in short term memory according to brain experts. They also say that it is never really forgotten it just goes into long term memory and like everything else if it is not accessed it becomes harder to access in the future. Not impossible just harder according to the research.
    Each teacher strives to teach to the best of their ability at my school. We talk an try to find common issues that we can help the students with. An example is math. Most of our students were having a terrible time with math so we hired a tutor and their scores have come up.
    I do not know of a teacher who does not spend a lot of personal money trying to educate students. Seminars on learning are not cheap and districts in California are running on limited budgets, supplementary materials are expensive but we buy them, computer programs are very costly but some of us spend the money.
    Many teachers spend hours after school working together to do a better job. Then hours on line at home, talking with other teachers, reading works of those that are successful. These are the good teachers most of us want to be not lazy and not cheap just limited with time and money.
    We try to mix it up to give every student a chance to succeed. This TED program is really a help also.
  • Aug 4 2011: I totally agree. Being a teacher, i see the immediate effects of project based learning. The query becomes what is the necessity of examinations or even numerical grades? What benefits are attributed to grades and examinations? Once a student leaves the classroom and enters the real world the product is the real test not the paper work.
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    Aug 2 2011: Well, of course, as you've pointed out, coursework makes students to engage into learning process and definitely is far more effective than only an examination session. However, it seems to be necessary to mark that coursework makes students to focus only on the small part of the module material, whereas preparation to exams require broader knowledge.
    In my opinion British higher education system is one of the best. At my former university (Aberystwyth) 60-50% of my mark was the coursework, the rest of my mark was composed with exam result.
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    Aug 1 2011: I think a mix of both is the best option... projects / coursework can be very time-consuming, especially when you have to work together with people who are not willing to contribute as much as you. Solo projects can be both satisfying (when you can really do what YOU want to do and show what YOU are capable of), but also frustrating (when you are stuck and there is no partner in the project who could take over or help out). On the other hand, I would not want to banish written or oral exams completely. Preparing for those requires good self-organization and this can be really helpful in the professional life as well. It's like holding a presentation in front of your bosses and your colleagues, you only get one chance to do it at a certain time and you have to be ready for the stress you will experience preparing and holding it.

    But there is another aspect I consider very important for grading: active participation in the classroom! It helps you to focus on what is being taught and if you take part in discussions, you will be able to memorize things a lot better and quicker. Plus, it helps you to improve your grades if you haven't done so well in your exam or project.

    So a mix of all the three aspects, courswork/projects, active participation and written/oral exams would be the best. However, this is just too much for work both the student and the teacher to really apply it to every class, course, lecture, whatever it is you are having. So I think it is legitimate to have courses where an end-term exam is the only thing that counts. I am also thinking about capacities: if the grading is too complicated and requires too much work, there will be a tendency to have less students, so the administrative part does not become overwhelming. Personally, I would gladly accept being graded based on my exam results if in exchange five or ten more students could get access to higher education.