uses of exams for problem solving skill

For many students, exams seem a necessary evil. Time-consuming yet inevitable. But are exams really necessary? And are they evil?

What do we want from assessment?

Good assessment programs aim to provide a balanced, fair evaluation of each student. They achieve this in two ways. First, they use of a variety of strategies and tasks. This gives students 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.

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 breadth

In most disciplines, there are specific bodies of knowledge that students are expected to learn. Physics students might learn about thermodynamics, while history students might learn about the cold war. Exams enable us to accurately test students’ breadth of understanding of these topics.

Critics of exams often instead promote “deep”, “rich”, and “authentic” assessment tasks. These are typically project-based tasks that draw on students’ creativity and interest. For example, history students might be asked to choose and research a historical character in depth. Business studies students might be asked to design the pitch for a new business seeking venture capital.


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