The Nature of the Exam in Engineering School

The end of year closed-book written examination, or exam for short, is still the main method of assessment in engineering schools. This is in spite of so many arguments against it by experts in higher education assessment methods.

Reasons for its continued dominance are many and varied, but key amongst them is that it is cultural. The exam has been with us for such a long time that almost everyone expects some sort of exam or exams at the end of the academic year. Academics who have been in the engineering education system for a long time have come to expect it – it is part and parcel of their traditional teaching role. Practising engineers who will be sitting on the various engineering job recruitment panels expect graduates to have sat some exams simply because they themselves sat and wrote exams in their student days. Finally, the student expects some sort of exam at the end of the year. This is because by the time students get to university they have sat and written scores of exams. So the main reason for the exam’s continued dominance is simply that it is part and parcel of the culture of doing education.

What then are the strengths of the exam? Those who swear by the exam believe that it is the fairest method of assessment. All the students enter the examination hall with only a pen and calculator. They are given the exam paper at the same time, under the same conditions, and they have to attempt the exam questions individually in a set period of time. What could be fairer than this?

A closer look, however, suggests that the exam is heavily biased towards our picture of the ideal student. But things are never ideal. As our understanding of individuals and assessment processes has improved, it is now clear that the exam does discriminate against certain categories of individuals. A case in point is the student with dyslexia. Such students handle text material differently from what we consider to be the norm, and for them the standard written exam presents a barrier which has nothing to do with mastery of the taught material. Of course, we have tried to accommodate such students by extending the exam time for them, having someone read out the questions for them, and in some cases having someone write out the answers under instruction from the student. Again, these attempts are not ideal; they simply serve to emphasise the “otherness” of the student in question, and might actually serve as a discrete way of telling them that they are not wanted in engineering. Indeed, engineering is notorious for its lack of diversity, and the exam only serves to reinforce this.

As an assessment tool, the exam can be fairly blunt. It is essentially a two- or three-hour test on students for material that has been taught in 20 or 30 hours of lectures combined with an equivalent number of hours for tutorials and workshops. Assuming that all the course material is covered in 20 hours of lectures, which is hardly the case, then for a two-hour exam, each hour of the exam is equivalent to half the entire course. This means that the exam can never assess the entire breadth of the course, and this is its major failing. A diligent student can prepare for the exam by covering all the lecture material, but this is highly inefficient, and every student knows that. This therefore suggests that in an exam-based course module, a student only needs to identify the examinable parts of the course material and focus only on them. This then is what learning is all about – mastering the art of the exam.

For well-established course modules, it is hugely beneficial for students to study the past exam papers. By study I don’t just mean working through all the exam questions.  Rather, the student should study the structure of the questions – how are the questions framed, what sort of answers is the examiner looking for, and most importantly which sections of the course material feature prominently in the past exam papers? More often than not, the diligent student will quickly realise that the exams follow a standard pattern.  There are some questions that recur consistently in the exam, and there are some topics that are never examined on, even though they are still accorded space in the teaching timetable.

Why do past exam papers, and the exam that you are preparing for if you are a student, cover the same sub-set of topics even though the course covers so much more than these? One reason is that experts on the material covered in a course module have very clear ideas of what is important and what is not important. Simply put, an exam in a particular area is simply inadequate if it does not cover certain areas, and this is a cardinal rule for setting exams. This means that in practice a student only needs to focus on just a handful of topics in order to excel in an exam. In course modules assessed entirely by the exam, or where the exam has a disproportionately high weighting compared to other forms of assessment, all that the student needs to do is to master only those elements of the course that appear regularly in the past exam papers.

If we then take the logic of the exam to its conclusion, we can infer that it is not necessary for students to attend all the lectures and workshops in a course module. All that a student needs to do is to concentrate on just the few lectures and workshops that contribute to the exam, and given that the exam is only two hours long, this subset of lectures and workshops can be very small. Taking this to another logical conclusion, it follows that in an exam-oriented engineering programme, a student can actually get a good degree without knowing so much as half the taught material. This may be one reason why some employers are convinced that most engineering degree qualifications are not worth the paper on which they are printed.

Be that as it may be, the exam determines what is important, and what is not important, in a course module. This has profound implications for curriculum design. As long as the exam remains dominant, it doesn’t matter how much innovation an engineering school makes to its course content and delivery. What matters is what appears in the exam. This alone effectively places a limit on the effectiveness of any curriculum innovations.

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