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The role of the teacher is to provide a valuable, relevant learning environment in which students are fully engaged in their learning. Teachers at all levels should be facilitating that learning process and a significant part of that process is providing feedback to students about their learning to help them improve.

To fail the exam means to fail the subject

There are some wonderful teaching-learning initiatives taking place in higher education all over the world. Yet, there is one area of the curriculum that some instructors still will not let go of – the single, ‘high-stake’ exam. To fail the exam means to fail the subject, especially when a further hurdle is attached, which expects students to achieve at least for example, 75% on the exam to qualify to pass the subject.

These critical exams have huge consequences for the student such as: failure, having to repeat the subject, enrolling in ‘remedial’ study, adding to the number of semesters to complete their program and incurring ever more costs – hardly motivating for students. In fact, some students become so disheartened, not to mention traumatized, they leave their study altogether. In that case, a profession has potentially missed out on someone who could have helped solve significant challenging problems, or contributed valuable, imaginative new ideas, systems, and inventions or built amazing teams of professionals.

Assessment is a core academic activity and an essential component of the learning process. Whatever the method of assessment used, it should be fair, relevant, meaningful and provide students with constructive feedback about their progress and help them improve i.e. have an educative purpose. Professor Nita Temmerman, Australia, presents three articles in Lucubrate Magazine that look at the area of student assessment against these principles. The first considers the issue of group assessment, the second looks at single high-stake exams as a form of assessment and the third teacher feedback as part of the assessment process.

Measure Genuine Learning

It is important at the outset to state that a profession must be assured that the graduates it employs have the requisite knowledge, skills, understanding and attributes required to make a worthwhile contribution to that profession. However, employers value employees who can demonstrate much more than just content knowledge. They appreciate employees who can exhibit attributes such as teamwork, good oral, written and digital communication, creative thinking, problem solving and leadership.

            Do single, high-stake exams constructively and comprehensively measure genuine learning? Not in my opinion. Are there ways to better determine if students have demonstrated ‘deep’ learning? Yes, absolutely.

Exams are Narrowly Focused

            I would suggest that for most, the 2-3 hour sit down, written exam in which students are not allowed to access notes, texts or any sources of information, invariably test how well a student has retained, memorized and can under stress, recall a huge stack of factual information. Too many conversations with students have convinced me that those with excellent memories are favoured by these exams.

            Most of these exams are narrowly focused asking students to list, describe, identify, or explain. They don’t provide authentic opportunity for creative problem solving, analytic thought or evaluation of concepts. Some students certainly have mastered the skill of how to pass exams and demonstrate a real aptitude for doing so. However, this does not necessarily provide evidence of how capable they really are in a certain area, for once they have finished one exam; they busily cram another lot of information into their head in preparation for the next. What percentage of knowledge actually sticks? Is the knowledge they studied comprehensive or narrowly focused to passing the exam? How much of what they memorized can they genuinely apply to real-world situations?

Assessment and the Learning Process

Students go to school, college or university to learn. Teachers at all levels should be facilitating that learning process and a significant part of that process is providing feedback to students about their learning to help them improve. High stake, single exams do not provide students with a chance to learn from their mistakes and improve. It is not usual practice to hand back the exam papers or provide individual counsel to students about where they went wrong.

There are other types of ‘exams’ often used in some disciplines that demonstrate more merit. For example, in the Arts, Business, Law and Humanities areas the open book exam is not an uncommon method of assessment. Students are presented with – say 6 possible exam questions, a week or so prior to the exam. Students are able to bring their research notes with them to the exam. The final paper includes 3 of the 6 questions students were given in advance and they are expected to answer all 3. An alternative to this is where students are presented with the exam paper at the designated exam time, but each has access to a computer, which they can use as a source of additional information to complete the exam as well as their study notes.

In both of the above examples, students are still expected to ‘know their stuff’, because they only have a finite amount of time to provide answers, but as what might happen in a real-life situation, the student is able to research other sources to verify what they know and provide a more comprehensive response. For example, when you go to a doctor about a rash on your hand, the doctor looks at it and based on his/her training makes a preliminary diagnosis. However, it is pretty standard practice for the doctor to then check a chart, book, and/or website or even seek a second opinion to confirm what type of rash it is before advising a treatment.

Alternative Assessment

Another type of exam is the end of semester oral exam or viva voce, again popularly used in some disciplines. There are different versions of this also. One such example is where a subject teaching team forms a panel/panels of say 3 academics to test student knowledge and understanding, spending approximately 15 minutes with each student. Often the viva voce is complimented with a substantial written piece of work and it is against this that questions are framed and responded to. There is nowhere for the student to hide and again they must demonstrate thoughtful knowledge and sound understanding and it certainly confirms whether the work they have presented is theirs.

The role of the teacher is to provide a valuable, relevant learning environment in which students are fully engaged in their learning. There are many different types of assessment methods, each appropriate for assessing different types of learning outcomes. Whatever the method of assessment used, it should provide students with constructive feedback about their progress and help them improve. I am not convinced single high-stake exams fulfil such a role.


Lucubrate Magazine February 2022

The photo on the top of the article: Adobe Stock


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Nita Temmerman
Professor Nita Temmerman

Nita Temmerman (PhD; MEd (Hons); BEd; BMus; ATCL; MACE) has held senior University positions in Australia including Pro Vice Chancellor Academic Quality, Pro Vice Chancellor International Partnerships and Executive Dean. She is an independent higher education consultant and invited professor to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, SE Asia and the Middle East and Academic Board Chair for private higher education institutions. Nita is also an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic & Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ), and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations & Customized Knowledge Solutions (Dubai). Projects draw on expertise in organisational strategic planning, quality assurance, academic accreditation and reaccreditation, higher education policy development and review, teacher education and curriculum design and evaluation. Nita has published 14 books, over 70 scholarly papers, conducted numerous presentations in SE Asia, Middle East, Pacific, UK and USA and remains an active contributor to several education publications.

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