What exams have taught me

http://community.brighton.ac.uk/jd29/weblog/45251.html

I have argued at some length on numerous occasions that exams, especially in their traditional unseen, time-limited, paper-based form, without access to books or Internet or friends, are the work of the devil and fundamentally wrong in almost every way that I can think of. They are unfair, resource-intensive, inauthentic, counter-productive, anti-educational, disspiriting, soulless products of a mechanistic age that represent an ethos that we should condemn as evil.

And yet they persist.

I have been wondering why something so manifestly wrong should maintain such a hold on our educational system even though it is demonstrably anti-educational. Surely it must be more than a mean-spirited small-minded attempt to ensure that people are who they say they are?

I think I have the answer.

Exams are so much a part of our educational system that pervade almost every subject area that they teach a deeper, more profound set of lessons than any of the subjects that they relate to. Clearly, from their ubiquity, they must relate to more important and basic things to learn than, say, maths, languages, or history. Subjects may come and subjects may go but the forms of assessment remain startlingly constant. So, I have been thinking about what exams taught me:

  • that slow, steady, careful work is not worth the hassle – a bit of cramming (typically one-three days seemed to work for me) in a mad rush just before the event works much more effectively and saves a lot of time
  • the corollary – adrenalin is necessary to achieve anything worth achieving
  • that the most important things in life generally take around three hours to complete
  • that extrinsic motivation, the threat of punishment and the lure of reward, is more important than making what we do fun, enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding
  • that we are judged not on what we achieve or how we grow but on how well we can display our skills in an intense, improbably weird and disconcerting setting

I learnt to do exams early in life better than I learnt most of the subjects I was examined on and have typically done far better than I deserve in such circumstances. I have learnt my lessons well in real life. I (mostly) hit deadlines with minutes to spare and seldom think about them more than a day or two in advance. I perform fairly well in adrenalin-producing circumstances. I summarise and display knowledge that I don't really have to any great extent. I extemporise. I do things because I fear punishment or crave reward. I play to the rules even when the rules are insane. A bit of high blood pressure comes with the territory. Sometimes this is really useful but I am really trying hard to get out of the habit of always working this way and tp adopt some other approaches sometimes.

There are many other lessons that our educational systems teach us beyond the subject matter – I won't even begin to explore what we learn from sitting in rows, staying quiet and listening to an authority figure tell us things but, suffice it to say, I haven't retained much knowledge of grammar, calculus, geography or technical drawing, but I am still unlearning attitudes and beliefs that such bizarre practices instilled in me.

Assessment is good. Assessment tells us how we are doing, where we need to try new things, different approaches, as well as what we are doing right. Assessment is a vital part of the learning process, whether we do it ourselves or get feedback from others (both is best). But assessment should not be the goal. Assessment is part of the process. 

Accreditation is good too. Accreditation tells the world that we can do what we claim we can do. it is important that there are ways to verify to others that we are capable (most obviously in the case of people on whom others depend greatly such as surgeons, bus drivers and university professors). Except in cases where the need to work under enormous pressure in unnatural conditions is a prerequisite (there are some occasions) I would just prefer that we relied on authentic evidence rather than this frighteningly artificial process that tells us very little about how people actually perform in the task domain that they are learning in.

The biggest problem comes when we combine and systematise assessment and accreditation into an industrialised, production-line approach to education, losing sight of the real goals. There are many other ways to do this that are less harmful or even positively useful (e.g. portfolios, evidence-based assessment, even vivas when done with care and genuine dialogue) and many are actually used in higher education. We just need more of them to redress the balance a bit.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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