Exams are used as an encouragement tool to compel greater engagement with the material. Photo / 123RF

I have been course co-ordinator for nearly 50 university papers and written over 100 exams and tests. I have heard all the arguments against exams – they’re archaic and irrelevant in today’s internet age, they are not an accurate reflection of learning, they are unreasonably stress-inducing.

But when used correctly, in combination with other teaching methods such as group projects and presentations, exams are an extremely effective teaching tool. Yes, teaching – not just assessment.

Let me explain. To my mind, an exam serves two main purposes. The first is technical and that is to sort individual students from the best understanding to the worst, in a secure environment where they can only rely on themselves.

This ability then reflects in their grades and is a standard stamp of approval that most students, their parents and industry expects from any quality institution. Students from a ‘taught to test’ system typically are obsessed with whether something will be in the exam or not.

But as educationalists we do two important things: we sort students and we teach them. Sorting is actually only a very small part of the job, and not that much fun. That’s why we think of ourselves as teachers rather than sorters. Unfortunately, some educational systems seem to be built on sorting students rather than teaching them.

It is certainly easier to sort than teach. Sorting can be done straight out of high school, or even earlier, and shows remarkable consistency – all things remaining constant, the top students from high school are usually the top students at university. So the question is: why bother teaching at all, if we can just sort them at uni in the same way, apply our stamp of approval, and pump them out the other side with a similar grade point average?

Well, one reason is because you don’t really learn much from being sorted, except your grade. Sorting, or categorising people, simply tells them where they’re at, which is a useful starting point, but that’s all it should ever be, a starting point. All too often, the sorting part of our educational system is treated like a life sentence, a mark of inevitability, rather than a foundation to build upon.

Because I believe people can always improve, I view teaching and learning, rather than sorting, as the best path to self-improvement. This brings me to the second purpose of an exam.

We use exams as an encouragement tool to compel greater engagement with the material. That is actually where the real value of an exam is. When students feel the stakes are high and are unsure of what exactly will be asked, they are incentivised to take a look at everything seriously.

That’s why teachers should never tell students exactly what will be examined, because 99 per cent of students will then focus only on that material, which defeats the true purpose of the exam.

In exams and in the real world, the first step to topic mastery is a general overview of key concepts and facts with as much detail as one can remember. Clearly, exams reward students that can do these things in a relevant way to answer a specific question.

A more advanced stage of mastery is the ability to creatively apply, integrate, and challenge the knowledge you have been taught. But it is difficult to get to that level if you haven’t got enough base material to work with.

There is still much value in slogging away at the “unexciting” basics, not only because it makes up the building blocks of topic mastery, but also because it builds character when one has to just apply oneself to focus and learn.

Sure, you could try to get by with Google but that doesn’t look too impressive in front of business partners, peers, or employers, especially if you are the CEO of a company answering to shareholders, a brain surgeon talking to a patient, or a commercial pilot about to land.

It is more impressive (and reassuring for others) if you just have the knowledge, and know how to apply it. And exams definitely serve as an incentive to get students to think in this way, under pressure, and on their own merit.

Incidentally, for the students out there, too busy studying to read this, don’t worry this opinion piece won’t be in your exam. Good luck.

Dr Michael S. W. Lee is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland business school.

Source: NZ Herald

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