Rethinking educational assessments: the matrimony of exams and coursework
It’s 2019 - and high time we rethink educational assessments. Source: Shutterstock

Standardised tests have been cemented in education systems across the globe, but whether or not they are a better assessment of students’ ability compared to coursework still divides opinions.

Proponents of exam assessments argue that despite being stressful, exams are beneficial for many reasons, such as:

  • Provides motivation to study;
  • Results are a good measure of the student’s work and understanding (and not anyone else’s); and
  • They are a fair way of assessing students’ knowledge of a topic and encourage thinking in answering questions that everyone else is also taking.

But the latter may not be entirely true. A Stanford study says question format can impact how boys and girls score on standardised tests. Researchers found that girls perform better on standardised tests that have more open-ended questions, while boys score higher when the tests include more multiple-choice questions.

Meanwhile, The Hechinger Report notes that assessments, when designed properly, can support, not just measure, student learning, building their skills and granting them the feedback they need.

“Assessments create feedback for teachers and students alike, and the high value of feedback – particularly timely feedback – is well-documented by learning scientists. It’s useful to know you’re doing something wrong right after you do it,” it said.

Exams are important for students, but they must be designed properly to ensure they support student learning. Source: Shutterstock

Conversely, critics of exams say the obsession with test scores comes at the expense of learning – students memorise facts, while some syllabi lack emphasis of knowledge application and does little to develop students’ critical thinking skills.

Meanwhile, teachers have argued that report card grades aren’t the best way to measure a student’s academic achievement, adding that they measure effort more than achievement.

Coursework, on the other hand, assesses a wider range of skills – it can consist of a range of activities such as quizzes, class participation, assignments and presentations. These steady assessments over an academic year suggests there is fair representation of students’ educational attainment while also catering for different learning styles.

Quizzes can be useful as they keep students on their toes and encourages them to study consistently, while giving educators a yardstick as to how well students are faring. Group work, however, can open up a can of worms when lazy students latch on to hard-working peers to pull up their grades, or when work is unevenly distributed among teammates.

It becomes clear that exams and coursework clearly test students’ different ‘muscles’, but do they supplement and support students’ learning outcomes and develop students as a whole?

The shifting tides

Coursework can develop skills such as collaboration and critical thinking among students, which exams cannot. Source: Shutterstock

News reports suggest that some countries are gradually moving away from an exam-oriented education system; these include selected schools in the US and Asian countries.

Last year, Malaysia’s Education Minister, Dr Maszlee Malik, said students from Year One to Three will no longer sit for exams come 2019, enabling the ministry to implement the Classroom-Based Assessment (PBD), in which they can focus on a pupil’s learning development.

Meanwhile, Singapore is cutting down on the number of exams for selected primary and secondary school levels, while Georgia’s school graduate exams will be abolished from 2020. Finland is a country known for not having standardised tests, with the exception of one exam at the end of students’ secondary school year.

Drawing from my experience, I found that a less exam-oriented system greatly benefitted me.

Going through 11 years of the Malaysian national education system was a testament that I did not perform well in an exam-oriented environment. I was often ‘first from the bottom’ in class, which did little to boost my confidence in school.

For university, I set out to select a programme that was less exam-oriented and eventually chose the American Degree Programme (ADP), while many of my schoolmates went with the popular A-Levels before progressing to their degree.

With the ADP, the bulk of student assessments (about 70 percent, depending on your institution) came from assignments, quizzes, class participation, presentations and the like, while the remaining 30 percent was via exams. Under this system, I found myself flourishing for the first time in an academic setting – my grades improved, I was more motivated to attend my classes and learned that I wasn’t as stupid as I was often made out to be during my school days.

This system of continuous assessments worked more in my favour than the stress of sitting for one major exam. In the former, my success or failure in an educational setting was not entirely dependent on how well I could pass standardised tests that required me to regurgitate facts through essays and open-ended or multiple choice questions.

Instead, I had more time to grasp new and alien concepts, and through activities that promoted continuous development, was able to digest and understand better.

Mixed assessments in schools and universities can be beneficial for developing well-rounded individuals. Source: Shutterstock

Additionally, shy students such as myself are forced between a rock and a hard place – to contribute to class discussions or get a zero for class participation, and to engage in group and solo presentations or risk getting zero for oral presentations.

One benefit to this system is that it gives you the chance to play to your strengths and work hard towards securing top marks in areas you care about. If you preferred the examination or assignments portion, for example, you could knock it out of the park in those areas to pull up your grades.

Some students may be all-rounders who perform well in both exam-oriented and coursework assessments, but not all students say the same. However, the availability of mixed assessments in schools and universities can be beneficial for developing well-rounded individuals.

Under this system, students who perform poorly in exams will still have to go through them anyway, while students who excel in exam-oriented conditions are also forced to undergo other forms of assessments and develop their skill sets, including creativity, collaboration, oral and critical thinking skills.

Students who argue that their grades will fall under mixed-assessments should rethink the purpose of their education – in most instances, degrees aim to prepare people for employment.

But can exams really prepare students for employment where they’ll be working with people with different skills, requiring them to apply critical thinking and communication skills over a period of time to ensure work is completed within stipulated deadlines, despite hiccups that can happen between the start and finishing line of a project?

It’ll help if parents, educators and policymakers are on the bandwagon, too, instead of merely chasing for children and students to obtain a string of As.  

Grades hold so much power over students’ futures – from the ability to get an academic scholarship to gaining entry to prestigious institutions – and this means it can be difficult to get students who prefer one mode of assessment to convert to one that may potentially negatively affect their grades.

Ideally, education shouldn’t be about pitting one student against the other; it should be based on attaining knowledge and developing skills that will help students in their future careers and make positive contributions to the world.

Exams are still a crucial part of education as some careers depend on a student’s academic attainment (i.e. doctors, etc.). But rather than having one form of assessment over the other, matrimony between the two may help develop holistic students and better prepare them for the world they’ll soon be walking into.

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