• Tom Pye
  • Sheffield, South Yorkshire
  • United Kingdom

This conversation is closed.

Exams are ineffective and should be abolished and replaced with course work

Exams have been used for a long time now as a fast and efficient way of assessing people. However fast and efficient they may be, they are not effective!
They do not show someone's true knowledge or potential, only their ability to memorise the curriculum and apply it on the day to a question that has little meaning.
A piece of course work allows students to demonstrate the same knowledge as they would in an exam but to a real problem that they will face in real life, thus preparing them for a career. One bit of work can even cover and bring together several topics into one problem.
Course work demonstrates the difference between "book smarts" and practical intelligence and is therefore a better method of assessment and is more useful for an employer to understand their real world value.

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    Feb 5 2012: Everybody has 'off' days, when one's ability to think clearly is not operating at 100%. If a student takes an exam on an off day, the poor result will not be a true indication of his/her memorized knowledge. Nor will it be representative of reasoning ability.

    The only way to accurately measure practical intelligence and memorized knowledge, therefore, is through course work.

    Exams do have their place, but only as 'snapshots' of the student's progress taken several times throughout the years of study. That way, if we really must measure ability through exams, at least it will then be averaged out over a full and representative period.
  • Jan 27 2012: Being a university student currently, I think there should be a balance between the two, or an integration of them. I do music production and the most useful 'test' of our knowledge of how to produce a band is us actually producing a band.

    For what is effectively a vocational course, this is pretty much coursework and an exam all at once. We have a limited time frame to complete the production in and thus cannot constantly refer back to books or Google-fu, we have to use our existing knowledge to make fast decisions. It's an accurate depiction of our industry, which is why this works.

    Obviously, this wouldn't apply to everything. It could apply to most though. Mathematics, for example. A test to see if you remember the forumlae to solve new problems seems to be the best way of checking you have actually learnt how to do something. Exams that contain a realistic element, such as a timed cooking test or a test to write a newspaper article, are a great way of reinforcing knowledge.

    However, at the risk of some particularly galling flashbacks, the English Literature exam I did for GCSE seemed pointless. We did not have the copy of the book we were meant to be analysing and there was no reason at all for our analyses to be timed. I understand a test of your ability to write something quickly in, for example, a journalism where deadlines must be met, but to analyse a novel in half an hour for no apparent reason seemed like a waste of time and an exercise in prose retention. As you may have noticed, I did not particularly like my GCSE English class.
    • Jan 27 2012: Im also currently at university, Im studying Mechanical Engineering and in the same way that the most affective assessment for you would be to produce a song, the most affective for me would be to have an actual project where I can apply all subject areas to one problem as I would in the real world. This still assesses me in all subject areas and to just as higher difficulty as an exam, but would also allow me to demonstrate my understanding of the subject area.
      I will have a project in my final year but I don't see why this can not be rolled out for all years. If they have the facilities to do it in the final year then they have the facilities to do it in the rest, and if they feel that it is a suitable assessment for a final year student then it is definitely suitable for the rest!

      I cant say I liked my GCSE English either but thats all in the past!
  • Jan 27 2012: Yes i completely agree with your view point, nowadays everyone is only interested in cramming books and getting good marks ,no one cares about knowledge and practical work.The marks scored in exams signifies nothing ,a person having good cramming skills will always score good in exam but the question arises will he/she will be able to excel during practical work.The course should be designed should lay emphasis on field work rather than cramming.
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      Jan 27 2012: They do not show someone's true knowledge or potential. Ya somewhat its true. But still there is no better way . What ever you want to do you need to memories something. To solve a integration you need to memories at-least 100 formula. And to practically find the movement of a particle you need to do 100 integration . So you got to memories thing.

      Now there is another thing also . At least 80% work in this world is repetitive . Need very less creativity.

      The point is the style of exam should be changed . It should be more applied. And this change should be for the rest 20 % .

      One more thing is there . It depends on occupation also. A journalist or legal professional has a way different from a engineer or investment banker.
      • Jan 27 2012: I agree that it is essential to memorise some things, in fact as much as you can! But This does not mean that we should focus examinations on testing that memory. Understanding of what the integration means is much more important that simple carrying out the integration itself to use your example.
        agree that no profession is the same and therefore should not be assessed in the same way, but I can not think of a single profession that is "exam based"

        And if I can answer your other comment here as well:
        I understand that it is possible to learn on the job and that you do not expect people to have the prior knowledge before they work with you. But wouldn't you like them to? In an ideal situation wouldn't you like have have a graduate straight out of university coming you work along side you, and they are complete capable and don't need you to carry them through?
    • Jan 27 2012: Sorry Kundan, I replied to Arnab's comment first.
      I glad you agree and see where I am coming from. I think the majority consensus from this discussion is that exams are not affective and need to completely redesigned. I agree that each courses assessment method should reflect the field of work that they are eventually training for.
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    Jan 22 2012: Exams are a way to verify what a person has committed to memory (long or short term). If that verification is essential to a well-executed educational process then it, or an improved alternate method, must be used. I guess you are arguing that such verification is not essential and the time would be better utilized on course work. So, the debate is not whether or not exams are effective, but whether they are essential and necessary.
    • Tom Pye

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      Jan 22 2012: I suppose that although course work does require you to know and understand the information, it does not require you to have it in your memory merely in your nots and text book that you are using for research.
      However in general an examination doesn't allow you to demonstrate a true understanding of the subject just for the question. Both have their merits and I suppose my title saying exams should be "abolished" was a bit heavy handed. But I feel that to demonstrate someone's true ability, and reflect the work that would be expected in a job, a much higher weighting should be given to course work.

      For example in my Engineering degree my exams have such high weighting that the difference between just passing, and getting 100% in one 3 hour exam, can mean the difference between a 1st and a 3rd over all for the entire year.
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        Jan 22 2012: Perhaps exams are essential and necessary but they are commonly misapplied to measure memory rather than understanding. You should not get passing credit for a class you do not understand, even though you may have memorized sufficient information to pass the exam. Thanks Tom.
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      Jan 22 2012: I find that the exams are very rigid and therefore not always indicative of the students ability for that course. Countless times I have sat a paper only to find that I cant express my answer in any way other than the simple and fixed solution they have decided upon. I've walked out of exams to discuss them with other students and they've asked me questions like "What is that about anyway, do you get it, I dont know what it meant, I got the answer though, I think". After explaining the concept and why you would want to use it, I've found out weeks later they got a better score than me!

      I recall one exam though in which each question had two parts, a computational part, in which only the mathematical answer was correct, and a reasoning part, which was a written response to what your answer meant and what it might indicate.You wouldnt believe how many students did poorly on that exam, some simply didnt write at all in the second part.

      One valuable thing I realised in my 2nd year was that absorbing this knowledge counts for only a portion of the ability of the one that holds it. After that, if you dont know what to do with it, you have no reason to have know it to begin with.Realising this, I guess all academic tests must first be based on "What" before "Why". This would make sense as to why all Undergrauate degrees are centred around "What" it is (information), and Post Graduate degress lean towards "Why'' it is (Understanding)
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        Jan 22 2012: We agree Jamie that an exam that fails to evaluate understanding is nothing more than an exam of (probably short term) memory, and adds no value to the education process.
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    Jan 22 2012: I disagree. There are many professions such as medicine and law where there are high steaks testing that will occur at the end of coursework to establish that the recipient of the degree has the minimum knowledge necessary for practice within a profession. Any profession requiring certification and/or licensure. Those exams safeguard the public.

    The only way to get a student ready for those exams is to make sure they are exposed to exams in professional coursework. To make sure students are ready for exams in professional coursework, they need to have had experience in exams in the elementary and secondary schools. They should be exposed to a multitude of testing procedures and types from written to oral, multiple choice to short answer so they can be well prepared for the exams they will be exposed to as professionals. Now being exposed to exams is different that being totally reliant on exams. But that is the balance we need.
    • Jan 22 2012: Im not sure I completely understand your full point, however I see where you are coming from. Although there may be some professions where exams are needed in order to practice, I dont feel that this is a good enough reason to base the vast majority of our curriculum on written examinations. Some practice of them is needed but the weighting that is given to them over other methods of assessment is not.
      for instance the one of the examples that you have given, medicine, is a hugely practical profession and someone's ability to treat a patient can not be assessed through a timed written exams.
      Your other example of law also has very little beyond the bar exam that represents an exam. It is about research, structuring an argument, and presenting your case, which I feel can be demonstrated better in a piece of course work, or an oral presentation as you have said.
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        Jan 27 2012: The practical experience you will gain in your 4/5 yrs of higher study can be gained in first 1 or max 2 yrs of your working life.
        When I look for a fresher I never expect that he will come and directly work in the live project.
        But what is required is a very strong logical reasoning , Pleasing communication skill , and theoretical knowledge of the field.
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    Jan 22 2012: From my experiences in my Engineering Degree, to do well in the exams, you must be able to apply the content as if it were second nature.I dont agree that this is the best indicator of smarts, because half the time, you dont fully understand what you are applying and why...but that concept is not assessed, you just have to reproduce a method.

    I recently sat an Exam for the last unit of Mathematics, some of the highest order questions on Matrix Algebra involved countless amounts of small sums and sign conventions. It was ridiculous to work these problems out in such a small time, and I did terribly because I succumb to time pressures, something I never normally do and something I would not have done if I were given more time. I was assessed on how well I could do against what felt like the clock of a time bomb, engineering is not about this, so I believe therein lies a huge flaw.
    • Jan 22 2012: Jamie, I am also doing an Engineering degree (2nd year). This is a prime example of when exams do not work. A course work assessment would have these countless sums as the initial stages, still demonstrating your ability to do them, and then the final answer would be used to solve a relevant engineering problem which would demonstrate your ability to apply information rather than just carrying out endless simple calculations.
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        Jan 22 2012: Tom I agree, and there has been countless studies done on Intelligence and the use of it.I recall one in particular that indicated that scholastic intelligence is nothing without emotional intelligence.

        What this may mean is that a scholastic intelligent person may find a solution to a problem, and do it very well. But without the emotional intelligence they may apply it poorly, not evaluate the impacts, consequences, or possible failures due to variables.They may not consider if the solution seems suitable, feasible or even realistic, here's one such example from the article;

        •A prominent rocket scientists can solve challenging problems of space travel, but makes a basic mistake when converting miles to kilometers. He may get a result that 1000 miles is equal to 100 kilometers and is unable to notice that the conversion makes no sense.
  • Jan 22 2012: In my opinion neither is an accurate assessment of understanding, I agree completely that the bulk of examinations are simple testing memorization of facts, or procedures.

    However course work isn't an accurate assessment either, rather course work is a chance to practice and learn the skills and concepts will help you moving forward. The reason I say course work is not an accurate assessment of understand is the amount of time you have to complete it. In most cases the due dates of assignments do not accurately reflect the amount of time that the task should take. This is a good thing however because the course work is not intended as assessments! As I said before they are PRACTICE.

    So how should someones understanding be measured? One way is with individualized assessments where the instructor actually sits down with you to work out your comprehension of the material, but this takes too much time. A second is practical use, as suggested, but with an additional stipulation, the time constraints must be reasonable. At the beginning of the "exam" simply give out an assignment that must be completed within a short period of time. Allow them to use any resources available to them and then grade them based on quality AND submission time of the final result.
    • Jan 22 2012: Nathaniel, although I agree that in come cases assignments deadlines are longer than should be expected, in my experience in my Engineering degree, having 8 hour days of lectures, plus about 5 assignments on the go at any one time and revising for exams, the standard 2 week deadline does not count for a lot. When that 2 weeks has to be divided equally between all the different bits of work I feel that that amount of time that you can realistically apply to each assignment is quite low and therefore fairly realistic of tight deadlines.

      Obviously this is very specific to my degree but the situation should not be too different for other discipline's.

      In my A-Level course I had have an assessment like you are suggesting. It was a 10 hour exam (split up into a couple of stages thankfully) to complete was was effectively a course work assignment. This was highly effective and I would not be opposed to this being rolled out across the board.