Friday, 20 April 2012

The Examination Season Approaches

This is a time of year when it's wonderful to be retired, as I no longer have to set and mark diverse exam scripts at various levels, for various courses. As it happens I did do a tiny bit of teaching this year at the MSc level, and was hence asked to set one question for the exam, but my colleagues teaching the rest of the course will deal with the marking - unless unexpected points crop up where they might need to consult me.

For the students, naturally, this time of year is probably a bit less wonderful, as their teaching is largely completed and they just have a short revision period before the exams themselves get under way. At undergraduate level we examine the students each semester, so in the spring semester most students should have no more than four exams to cope with - very occasionally, a student might take five exams if they have some catching up to do; and final year students writing an honours dissertation will only have three, though the dissertation itself also has to be assessed. For most courses, students will also have done some essays that contribute towards their final mark, but exams usually provide the bulk of their assessment.

Most of the examinations we set in economics and management give the students lots of choice, for instance to answer three questions out of eight, though sometimes we set a batch of multiple choice questions or short essay questions that all have to be answered. All our exams, as far as I am aware, are closed book; students cannot take into an examination their textbooks or lecture notes, and the only permitted help is formula tables in quantitative exams, and English dictionaries for the many overseas students we have.

So that's what we actually do as regards assessment and exams. The question is, could we do better? Is our rather traditional model of examinations still suited to the modern world, or are there better models 'out there' that we could adopt? Let's think about some alternatives.

(a) Don't examine at all
On this model, we would just take the view that the experience of being at university for three or four years for the standard undergraduate programme, and surviving right through to the end, merits the award of a degree. End of story! This approach would make it hard to distinguish weaker and stronger students, of course, and employers might not be too pleased at the limited information provided about what students had done. But educationally, is this such a terrible idea?

(b) No exams, just a final short viva to judge student performance
This is a step beyond (a) in that it tries, in a rough and ready way, to distinguish between different qualities of student performance. When this sort of idea comes up it is sometimes protested that many students would be too nervous to do well in a viva, and that therefore it is unfair. But the same argument can be raised regarding exams (some people are good at them, others not), and yet they form the basis for our standard assessment model. It can also be argued that a viva is rather subjective, though when I've been asked to hold undergraduate vivas (e.g. occasionally as part of an external examining duty) I've found them interesting, informative and surprisingly helpful. So I think there could be some mileage here.

(c) Examine entirely through assessed coursework, no final exams
We already do this for some optional courses, but not for a whole degree programme. But why not extend the idea to all courses? One advantage, since there are no exams and no revision period, it that we could actually teach a bit more than we do. So we could cover more material or achieve somewhat greater depth, while the students write their essays, do projects, and so on. The whole educational experience could be very diverse and challenging. The possible snag is that it runs into problems of plagiarism, just copying chunks of material from websites. This is far too easy and tempting these days, though we are also learning to police it better. So it should be manageable. Some professional bodies and employers prefer to see our students examined, so they might not welcome this coursework approach. And just as some students are brilliant at exams, other really shine when doing coursework - would that be fair? Overall, I'm sure these snags could be managed if we wanted to follow this direction.

(d) The traditional model
This is either exams only or a mix of exams and coursework as outlined above. It works, we're all familiar with it, and it's been around for a long time. Is it still suited to the modern world? Well, I'm always very skeptical when folk claim that we live in a modern world and that 'therefore everything has to change'. As a general principle this seems to me to be pretty silly. Indeed quite the opposite, if something has been around a long time and still seems to work well, why rush to change it?

This line of argument suggests we just stick with the traditional model of assessment. However, it does also seem to me that we should regularly think about other options such as those above, not least because we gradually learn more about the educational process and how people learn, and in time this might lead us to prefer some other way of testing our students.

But nothing so radical will be happening in the current exam season!

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