Are high-stakes exams useful to the learning process?

There are some wonderful teaching-learning initiatives taking place in universities all over the world. Yet, there is one area of the curriculum that some academics will not let go of – the single, ‘high-stakes’ exam. To fail this exam means to fail the subject, especially when a further hurdle is attached, for example, expecting students to achieve at least 75% on the exam to qualify to pass the subject.

These critical exams have huge consequences for the student such as failure, having to repeat the subject and enrolling in ‘remedial’ study, adding to the number of semesters to complete the degree and incurring ever more costs. This is hardly motivating for students.

In fact, some students become so disheartened, not to mention traumatised, that they leave university altogether. In these cases, a profession has potentially missed out on someone who could have helped solve significant challenging problems, or contributed valuable, imaginative new ideas, systems and inventions or built amazing teams of professionals.

It is important at the outset to state that a profession must be assured that the graduates it employs have the requisite knowledge, skills, understanding and attributes required to make a worthwhile contribution to that profession.

However, employers value employees who can demonstrate much more than just content knowledge. They appreciate employees who can exhibit attributes such as teamwork, good oral, written and digital communication, creative thinking, problem solving and leadership.

Memory vs broad-ranging ability

Do single, high-stakes exams constructively and comprehensively measure genuine learning? Not in my opinion. Are there ways to better determine if students have demonstrated ‘deep’ learning? Yes, absolutely.

I would suggest that for most, the two- to three-hour sit-down, written exam in which students are not allowed to access notes, texts or any sources of information invariably tests how well a student has retained, memorised and is able, under stress, to recall a huge stack of factual information. Too many conversations with students have convinced me that those with excellent memories are favoured by these exams.

Most exams are narrowly focused, asking students to list, describe, identify or explain. They don’t provide authentic opportunity for creative problem-solving, analytic thought or evaluation of concepts.

Some students have certainly mastered the skill of how to pass exams and demonstrate a real aptitude for doing so. However, this does not necessarily provide evidence of how capable they really are in a certain area for, once they have finished one exam, they busily cram another lot of information into their head in preparation for the next.

What percentage of knowledge actually sticks? Is the knowledge they studied comprehensive or narrowly focused to passing the exam? How much of what they memorised can they genuinely apply to real-world situations?

Students go to school, college or university to learn. Teachers at all levels should be facilitating that learning process and a significant part of that process is providing feedback to students about their learning to help them improve.

High stakes, single exams do not provide students with a chance to learn from their mistakes and improve. It is not usual practice to hand back the exam papers or provide individual counsel to students about where they went wrong.

One particular reason often provided by academics (especially in some discipline fields) for the need for high-stakes formal, written, sit-down exams is that they help overcome the plagiarism, cheating or collusion issues they see in other forms of assessment.

These can certainly be huge issues and are given considerable attention by universities, which advertise to students the policies and expected practices (for example, the use of software like Turnitin), along with the consequences of engaging in such unscrupulous actions.

Different types of exams

Exams have been a part of education systems for a very long time and probably will be with us for many more years. Given the affection some university academics in certain disciplines have for the written end-of-semester exam, perhaps the merits of other types of exams could be better shared across disciplines.

For example, in the arts, business, law and humanities areas, the open book exam is not an uncommon method of assessment. Students are presented with, say, six possible exam questions a week or so prior to the exam. Students are able to bring their research notes with them to the exam. The final paper includes three of the six questions they were given in advance and they are expected to answer all three.

An alternative to this is where students are presented with the exam paper at the designated exam time, but each has access to a computer which they can use as a source of additional information to complete the exam as well as their study notes.

In both of the above examples, students are still expected to ‘know their stuff’, because they only have a finite amount of time to provide answers, but, just as what might happen in a real-life situation, the student is able to research other sources to verify what they know and provide a more comprehensive response.

For example, when you go to a doctor about a rash on your hand, the doctor looks at it and based on his or her training makes a preliminary diagnosis. However, it is pretty standard practice for the doctor to then check a chart, book and-or website or even seek a second opinion to confirm what type of rash it is before advising a treatment.

Another type of exam is the end-of-semester oral exam or viva voce, again popularly used in some disciplines. There are different versions of this too. One such example is where a subject teaching team forms a panel or panels of, say, three academics to test students’ knowledge and understanding, spending approximately 15 minutes with each student.

Often the viva voce is complemented with a substantial written piece of work and it is against this that questions are framed and responded to. There is nowhere for the student to hide and again they must demonstrate thoughtful knowledge and sound understanding and it certainly confirms whether the work they have presented is theirs.

The role of the teacher is to provide a valuable, relevant learning environment in which students are fully engaged in their learning.

There are many different types of assessment methods, each appropriate for assessing different types of learning outcomes. Whatever the method of assessment used, it should provide students with constructive feedback about their progress and help them improve. I am not convinced that single, high-stakes exams fulfil such a role.

Dr Nita Temmerman is a former university pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University and Solomon Islands National University, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, registered expert at the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and a published author.