Examining assessment or assessing examinations

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By Craig Nudelman

Every six months, students in schools and universities around the country go into a frenzy. Anxiety levels peak as they worry about exams.

I think that we need to relook at how we approach assessing our students, especially in a world where more and more children are susceptible to high anxiety and hysteria.

The first issue that I have is that exams cater for one kind of learning. They are a test of one’s ability to recall information using a defined set of parameters. Another issue which makes me upset about exams is that they happen on one specific day and time. We all function differently at different times. Also, something could have happened outside of school or university that affects our focus on the day.

Rob Bristow, head of Pearson Education in the UK, writing in The Telegraph, states that “That over-emphasis (on performing well in exams) leads to a ‘pressure cooker environment’ with students finding it difficult to cope with the extraordinary levels of stress associated with taking exams. Sometimes parents also contribute to this stress, albeit with the best of intentions.”

I see more students becoming so anxious they have to get emotional support from the social workers when exams come around. In class, my students continuously ask me, “is it in the exam?”. This shows how they are not driven to receive an all-round education, but learn just enough to do well at school. There is no room for extension; instead there is only room for getting the marks to please either themselves or their parents.

I have had students coming up to me in tears when they have not done well, saying that their parents will be angry with them. Is this the kind of environment we want our children to be in for a significant period of their lives? Another problematic area with exams is that we seem to think it measures intelligence. When you see the crosses and the comments written in red across the paper upon which you wrote, it has ever-lasting effects on your self-confidence. I know that when I performed poorly in exams, it was traumatic. I felt as if I couldn’t achieve things, and it made me think of myself as stupid and inadequate. Perhaps the word ‘intelligence’ as we know it is problematic in itself. Intelligence is defined as, ‘the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills’. However, there are many synonyms related to intelligence which do not fit into that particular definition and exams do not cater to the creativity needed for important transferable skills like being savvy and having mental agility in a situation.

There are people who believe that exams are an important way to assess students’ knowledge in a constructive manner.

Penny van Bergen and Rod Lane from Macquarie University in Sydney say that exams focus on breadth of understanding on certain topics, which promotes overall learning of a subject, instead of delving into one topic in a deeper way. They also suggest that in exams, it is much more difficult to cheat. Plagiarism is indeed a problem that needs to be addressed, and this does curb it. The final positive aspect of exams, according to them, is that it enhances the learning process. They state, “Studying is like exercising. When one exercises, the muscles in use grow stronger. (…) This means that when newly qualified teachers, doctors, lawyers, or accountants come to retrieve information they need, it is — as a consequence of having been practiced previously — now easier to access.”

So what can one take out of this? How does one deal with the issues that exams cause, i.e. anxiety, inability to cater to different intelligences, and the fact it will affect our lives forever from one final assessment? In contrast, is there any other way to assess students which is not formalised for the entire student body for one specific subject, which can be marked, inasmuch as one can, in an objective manner?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. However, we have to find a middle ground to ensure that we can rear successful, well-adjusted people with transferable skills for the new socio-economic environment in which we live.

And if you are a student reading this, just remember there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Exams will end for this academic year soon, and you will be free from the stress and anxiety that they bring — albeit for just a little while.

As it is in the middle of Chanukah, may the light of the Chanukah candles burst through any darkness exams may bring.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

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