The Joy of Exams

The Joy of Exams

Angus Cameron 12th November 2021

Many years ago, I had the dubious pleasure of regular run-ins with a senior academic colleague.  We’ll call him Professor X.  The rows we engaged in were generally good-natured – they became a kind of game – but were also very serious: they concerned the nature and function of ‘assessment’.

Each semester we’d go through the same merry dance.  In my capacity as ‘exams officer’, I’d request draft papers, essay questions and other planned assessments from my colleagues.  These would be scrutinised for appropriateness and consistency and above all proofread – I suspect I got the role because of my well-known pedantry.  Most colleagues took this job very seriously and produced exemplary assessments.  And then there was Professor X.  He took particular pleasure from setting one word ‘questions’.  The word was deliberately ambiguous meaning that, as he would gleefully tell me, there was a right answer and lots of wrong answers.  Any hapless student picking one of the latter would fail.  At zero.  This, I was assured, was good for them.

In fact, it was an extreme example of what we might call ‘assessment as punishment’: common enough in universities at the time, though rarely as brutal as X’s version.  Professor X’s twisted logic was that since all modes of assessment carry the risk of failure, amplifying that risk would instil discipline in the learners.  For many students this was not the outcome.  Professor X’s punitive exams produced high levels of stress, many fails and, as a consequence, the cumbersome bureaucracy of resits.  And, yes, he’d try to use the same form of idiotic questioning in the resits.  Or did until I stopped him.

Professor X exploited a tension that exists in nearly all modes of assessed learning: they do indeed carry the risk of failure.  But failure is not and never should be the intention of assessment.  This is true for all learners, but acutely so for those participating in the advanced academic programmes here at Roffey Park.  The stakes are simply much higher for our students.  All come to us rich in experience and knowledge from their professional careers, but any formal university-level education – with its arcane rules, obscure language, and hand-aching exams – may be a distant memory.  All of which is why we never take the Professor X approach to assessment.

Far from serving to punish, effective assessment takes each student on a structured learning journey.  Each step consists of two forms of communication concerning the task at hand: feedforward and feedback.  Feedforward involves careful description of the nature and purpose of each assessed task.  Learners are informed in advance what is expected at each level of a numeric scale 0-100.  And there is variety – lots of different ways for each participant to demonstrate their learning in the best way possible: reports, presentations, portfolios, long and short-form essays, journals.  And it is important to emphasise they are demonstrating that knowledge to themselves and their peers, not to us: much as we are always thrilled by their success.  Feedback communicates that achievement to the student in several ways. First, before an assessment is submitted, our learners share and discuss each other’s work – ‘formative’ feedback allowing refinement and revision.  Once submitted for ‘summative’ assessment, each piece is given a numeric grade, carefully explained in reference to criteria shared at the start of the programme.  Students are given qualitative feedback – an account of what worked well, and what might be improved upon in future tasks.  All positive and constructive, all intended to support and develop rich learning.  This is further reinforced through conversations with fellow learners, personal tutors and module leaders.

Unlike Professor X, all our assessment activity is intended to mitigate risk for the learner: to make failure a very unlikely outcome.  This is not – as Professor X would claim – a form of ‘dumbing down’: making it impossible to fail.  Quite the contrary.  A carefully designed assessment schedule provides learners with all the tools they need to succeed: to share their newly-acquired skills and knowledge with confidence and clarity.  They can, and occasionally do, fail, but this is rare and can normally be rectified.  And the one form of assessment we never use and never will – the joyless exam.

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