The Abiding Hold of the Exam on University Education

The exam season is nearly over, the exam results have been released to the students, and I am taking a much needed rest before the conference season starts in earnest at the beginning of July. Walking up and down the campus this week, one is greeted by an unusual silence in the academic corridors. The undergraduate students are all gone. The only people working, it seems, are the masters’ students getting started on their dissertations, the PhD students and the postdoctoral researchers. And the academics need the rest, especially after the tortuous exam marking, and the perennial wrangling that come along with the examination board meetings.

Coming to think of it, there is no disputing that the end of year exam has a particular hold on the university system. A long a time ago, the only method of assessing a student’s progress was through the exam. Now coursework has crept in, and for good reasons, but the exam still holds sway. It largely determines the curriculum, the yearly academic cycle of activities, and the future of the majority of students. This statement might appear sacrilegious, particularly after so much research and effort to provide inclusive and more meaningful assessment of academic progression, but it still remains a fact.

The exam is normally a 2-hour or 3-hour academic exercise carried out at the end of the year, usually in the month of May. In fact, the UK academic calendar is made up of three terms. The first term runs from September/October up to the onset of the Christmas holidays in December. The second term runs from the beginning of January up to the beginning of April. Usually the end of the second term coincides with the beginning of the Easter holidays. The third term starts at the beginning of May, and runs until the end of June. Teaching takes place in the first two terms, and the third term is reserved primarily for revision and for writing exams.

Twenty or so years ago, the exam was the only assessment in most course modules. However, nowadays, most course modules have some coursework in addition to the end of year exam. Some modules nowadays are even entirely assessed through coursework. The reasons for introducing coursework are many, but the primary reason is that it enables the academic to assess various aspects of academic mastery. With coursework, it is feasible to assess critical academic skills such as data gathering and research, critical thinking and academic discourse skills, as well as academic presentation skills. One can assess essay writing skills, argumentation and academic presentations using a variety of media, including the ubiquitous PowerPoint slides, video and even social media. In short, an astute academic can tailor coursework to assess the transformation of an academic into a professional through assessing the enactment of various aspects of academic practice. For example, within engineering, one can assess a student’s leadership and team-working skills, in addition to academic competence in the subject in question. All this can be directly linked with current modes of active learning, to the extent that learning, assessment and feedback become one whole, rather than separate, tenuously related entities. It is therefore arguable that the future is likely to go in favour of more coursework and less and less end of year exams.

But what does the exam assess? Previously, it was widely held that the exam was the only vehicle for assessing mastery of academic knowledge. Students would be questioned on the theoretical concepts covered in course modules, and they would all have to provide answers within a set amount of time, under observation from eagle-eyed invigilators and examiners.  The strength of the exam was, and still is, that a student could demonstrate mastery of academic concepts without any outside assistance, unless, of course, they brought into the exam some forbidden external help.  The exam was also seen to be fair, since all students attempted the exam at the same time, and under the same environmental conditions.

But the exam’s strengths is also its weakness. First, it is best suited to assessing mastery of theoretical concepts, and not mastery of professional practice. An exam result cannot shed light on whether a student is going to be a good engineer or not. All it says is that the student has mastered a certain amount of theoretical knowledge. On the other hand, a well-designed piece of coursework can provide irrefutable evidence of the student’s progression towards professional competence. With properly designed coursework, what you see is what you get. It enables a more rounded assessment of the individual student compared to the exam.

Because the exam is primarily theoretically oriented, the focus of a course module can easily be on examinable theoretical concepts. This means that although the stated module syllabus might cover various aspects of study, an exam will constrain students and academics alike to focus only on a very narrow segment of the syllabus. In fact, the end of year exam has given rise to notions of the hidden curriculum, whereby the actual syllabus followed by students is not the one laid down in the course handbook, but the one gleaned from past exam papers.

Then why does the exam still hold such a high prominence in university education? One reason, in my opinion. The exam is well established; it is part of our university culture, and everyone expects it. Professional bodies such as the engineering institutions expect it, parents expect it, students expect it, and external examiners expect it. In fact, within most exam boards, the exam holds pride of place, even in those courses where coursework forms the bulk of the assessment. And when you have to redesign the undergraduate curriculum, the decision to remove the end of year exam is usually the greatest source of conflict.

And another reason for the continuous hold of the exam on university education is this. It is not easy to design effective coursework. Effective coursework is one that assesses all aspects of course mastery, and one that actively discourages students from copying each other, colluding, or farming out the coursework to professional coursework writers. Effective coursework requires the active involvement of both the teaching team and students throughout the coursework period. Effective coursework requires time, thought and tenacity to put together, and even within universities, these three attributes are not always available. And so the easiest escape route is to go down the end of year exam route.

So what does the future holds then? Simply this, more coursework will creep into the university curriculum, but the end of year exam will continue to hold pride of place, at least for the foreseeable future.

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