In recent weeks, learners across primary schools have been breathing sighs of relief. Exams results are officially out, and celebrations have begun. For many learners, exams seem a necessary evil. Time-consuming yet inevitable. But are exams really necessary? And are they evil?
The performance of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education dropped noticeably this year. The top candidate scored 440 marks, compared with 453 last year with the number of those with 400 marks and above falling to 9,770 down from 12,205 in2018 and9,846 in 2017. An analysis of the 2019 results shows that candidates in the 300-400 mark bracket rose to 243,320 from 223,862 last year.
There are certain flaws in the examination system. The knowledge imparted is restricted to the syllabus. Learners are taught according to the prescribed syllabus. Nothing much is taught beyond the syllabus. When a student is unable to grasp a particular subject, they seek private tuitions or enrol themselves in coaching classes.
Books, books and no play
Learners tend to cram their subjects by heart, without applying their mind. Thus, cramming enables many learners to pass examinations. Most learners look towards their examinations with an anxious mind. They, at a very young age, begin to feel the tension and stress of examinations.
Examinations are just the first in a series of tests that initiate young ones into a competitive world. But the importance attached to them is unreasonably high. During the examination period and till the result is declared, not only the learners but also their parents and teachers remain tensed. It is cast as a do-or-die battle.
Learners do not have enough spare time for games and are unable to give wings to their hobbies due to the burden of examinations. Failure in the examination arouses a feeling of low self-esteem and negative self-image in the minds of the learners. At times, learners break down under pressure to perform and resort to extreme measures like running away from their homes or even committing suicide.
There are instances where exams have resulted in some learners becoming so disheartened, not to mention traumatized, that some, unfortunately, commit suicide. In cases of suicide, a potential profession or organisation 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.
Today school psychologists or school counselors give them proper advice to increase the efficiency of learning in schools and handle to the pressure of examination.
A positive mental state can improve one’s chances of success. It is important at the outset to state that organisations must be assured that the graduates they employ have the requisite knowledge, skills, understanding and attributes required to make worthwhile contributions to that organisation.
Leakage of question papers, copying and cheating in examination halls have become a common affair. Bribery and other corrupt practices also have crept into the examination system. Even some of the teachers check the examination papers without assessing them properly, as a result of which learners suffer. Examinations give a degree or a grade to the student.
The prevailing system of education does not help the learners to make their career in life or to earn a decent living. The youth who fails to get the desired percentage of marks suffer the most.
Do National exams like KCPE constructively and comprehensively measure genuine learning? Not in my opinion. Are there ways to better determine if learning has taken place? Yes, undeniably. I would suggest that for most, the two- to three-hour sit-down, written exam in which learners are not allowed to access notes, texts or any sources of information invariably tests how well a student has retained, memorised and is able, under stress, to recall a huge stack of factual information. Too many discussions with learners have convinced me that those with excellent memories are favoured by these exams.
Most exams are narrowly focused, asking learners to list, describe, identify or explain. They don’t provide an authentic opportunity for creative problem-solving, analytic thought or evaluation of concepts. Some learners have been coached to master 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 areas for, once they have finished one exam, they are busily made to 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 on passing the exam? How much of what they memorised can they genuinely apply to real-world situations? Learners 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 learners about their learning to help them improve.
National exams do not provide learners 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 learners about where they went wrong. One particular reason often provided by academics (especially in some discipline fields) for the need for National formal, written, sit-down exams is that they help overcome the plagiarism, cheating or collusion issues they see in other forms of exams.
What do we want from Exams?
Examinations are tests for evaluating a student’s knowledge. The present system of education ignores the student’s individual skills and intelligence. Parents and teachers judge a student’s potential through examinations. Nothing much is taught beyond the syllabus and only examinations determine the degree or grade of a student. Cheating, leaking of question papers and other corrupt practices, that have cropped up in the examination system should be checked. The aim of education should be to equip the student to face the tough battle of life.
Examinations aim at judging a student’s knowledge in a specific time frame and in analyzing whether the student has gone through a certain course of study satisfactorily. Tests enable the teacher to know how well the student has understood the subject. A good result makes the teacher as well as the parents happy. The effort of the teacher is rewarded when a student passes an examination and vice versa.
Thus, a teacher’s dedication towards his profession is judged through examination. Examinations help the parents to assess their child’s capability. Parents become proud of their children when they perform well in the examinations.
Learners become alert when examinations are at their doorstep. They utilize their time for preparation. Examinations make them work hard for scoring good marks. Some schools award citations and certificate and give scholarships to those learners who excel. Such awards prompt the learners to work hard.
Examinations help the teachers and the parents in analyzing the amount of labor put in by the learners in gaining knowledge. Teaching is always followed by tests because the tests give an impression as to how well the learners have understood the subject. A good result helps the teacher feel relieved at his success in imparting education to his pupils while a bad result indicates that there is a need of more effort on the teacher’s part.
Thus, examinations are also a means of judging a teacher’s dedication towards his profession. With the help of the result of examinations, parents can make the right assessment of their child’s calibre. If he is weak in his studies, they could guide him further in the subject. f his performance is up to the satisfaction of his parents, they would be proud of him.
Teachers and parents should appreciate the true meaning of learning which is about inculcation of knowledge, skills and attributes.
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
Good exams aim to provide a balanced, fair evaluation of each student. They achieve this in two ways. First, they use a variety of strategies and tasks. This gives learners multiple opportunities, in varying contexts, to demonstrate what they know and can do. It also enables teachers to be confident in the accuracy of their judgements about each student.
Teachers and parents should appreciate the true meaning of learning which is about inculcation of knowledge, skills and attributes. This requires emphasis on learning outcomes and learners ability to internalise and apply knowledge and develop affective senses to enable them to co-exist with others in society.
Second, tasks must be “fit for purpose”. Assuming a subject has a number of goals (knowledge to learn, skills to acquire), each task should be appropriate to the specific goal or goals it is assessing. This means that a task assessing base knowledge will look different to one assessing creativity.
Exams focus on extend of understanding
In most disciplines, there are specific bodies of knowledge that learners are expected to learn. Physics learners, for example, might learn about thermodynamics, while history learners might learn about the cold war. Exams enable us to accurately test learners’ breadth of understanding of these topics.
Opponents of exams often instead promote “deep”, “rich”, and “authentic” assessment tasks. These are typically project-based tasks that draw on learners’ creativity and interest. For example, history learners might be asked to choose and research a historical character in depth. Business studies learners might be asked to design the pitch for a new business seeking venture capital.
These tasks develop several important higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis and decision-making. However, they’re not alternatives to exams. They do different things. And this is exactly what is required: multiple, different tasks to maximise learners’ opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do.
Exams should also be fit-for-purpose. Where breadth of knowledge is important, assessment tasks that target this breadth is imperative. It is key that future doctors know the entire human body. Future teachers should know a full repertoire of teaching and learning approaches. Can exams help achieve this ?.
Do exams enhance learning?
On a more positive note, there is evidence that both studying for and sitting exams deepens learning. Studying is like exercising. When one exercises, the muscles in use grow stronger. Likewise, the process of searching through ones memory and retrieving the relevant information strengthens that memory pathway for future uses. 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 practised previously – now easier to access.
So, how can we best make use of this “practice effect” for memory? Research tells us that learning is particularly strong when learners self-test. Rather than passively reading and remembering by rote, we want our learners to study by forming appropriate questions, searching memory for relevant responses, and knitting this information together into an appropriate answer.
We think this third benefit of exams is the most exciting. Exams don’t just provide a targeted, fit-for-purpose opportunity for learners to demonstrate what they know: they also have the power to enhance what learners know
Can there be alternatives to exams?
Exams have been a part of education systems for a very long time and probably will be with us for many more years. Given the affection some educationists have in certain disciplines for the written end-of-semester exam, perhaps the merits of other types of exams could be better shared across disciplines.
For example, in the arts, business, law and humanities areas, the open book exam is not an uncommon method of assessment. Learners are presented with, say, six possible exam questions a week or so prior to the exam. Learners are able to bring their research notes with them to the exam. The final paper includes three of the six questions they were given in advance and they are expected to answer all three.
An alternative to this is where learners are presented with the exam paper at the designated exam time, but each has access to a computer that 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, learners are still expected to ‘know their stuff’, because they only have a finite amount of time to provide answers, but, just 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 or 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.
Thoughtful knowledge & sound understanding
Another type of exam is the end-of-semester oral exam, again popularly used in some disciplines. There are different versions of this too. One such example is where a subject teaching team forms a panel or panels of, say, three academics to test learners’ knowledge and understanding, spending approximately 15 minutes with each student.
Often the end-of-semester oral exam is complemented 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 learners 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 learners with constructive feedback about their progress and help them improve. I am not convinced that single, high-stakes exams fulfil such a role.
In 2011, Macquarie University was the first Australian university to debate the abolition of exams. No exams in any subject, at any year level. At the time it was suggested that exams fail to develop “questioning, self sufficient learners”. Critics also often argue that exams promote a superficial understanding of topics, and that they are inauthentic: that is, they fail to represent the kinds of things learners will be asked to do “in the real world”.
However, this is taking a narrow view of the benefits of exams. Exams include many of the aspects we want from the assessment.
Education through training
Rather than abolishing exams, we should instead be asking what mix of assessment tasks is most appropriate for each subject. Where might exams fit? And what are their benefits?
They have recommended the need for a new pattern that would impart education thought training. Educational experts feel that the educational system being obsolete and redundant is not serving the purpose of educating the youth.
They have felt the need to evaluate a student’s performance during the whole year. This could make the examination system more acceptable. According to the new method adopted by many public schools, examinations would remain a part and parcel of the education system. However, periodic tests will be held at regular intervals.
The syllabus would include practice exercise at the end of each lesson. This will help the student in grasping the subject matter properly. The aim of education should be to equip the student for the tough battle of life, build his character and personality, widen his sphere of knowledge and qualify him for employment. The student should not only be taught lessons from books but also lessons from practical life. The educational system should not only be theoretical and academic but also give practical knowledge.
Learners should not be encouraged for rote learning. Projects and term papers may encourage an engagement with the subject matter and are more likely to add sum and substance to a student’s knowledge base. When History, Geography and Maths are reduced to mere digits on a mark sheet, they cease to inspire, give joy, or nurture the faculty of inquiry.
Nevertheless, the system of examination, prevalent for centuries, cannot be changed overnight. It will take some time to change the system. While this transition takes place, the corrupt practices, cheating and leakage of question papers related to examinations should be checked.
Parents should not make their love conditional to the performance of their children in the examinations. Their expectation level should be reasonable. With this and with the revised system of education, examinations will prove beneficial for the learners.
Dr Elijah Achoch is a Human Resource Management and Development Specialist and an adjunct lecturer in Kenya’s top universities Business Schools. He holds a PhD degree in HRM from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Email: [email protected]