Exams should contribute no more than 25% of final grades

Examination is a form of summative assessment used for measuring student knowledge, skills or aptitude. It is administered at the end of a course, course unit or module by lecturers, professors or their appointed representatives.

Examinations are comprehensive and normally students are required to complete them within a specified time.

They could be open book, in which students are allowed to reference written materials, or closed book in which students are forbidden from referencing any written materials. They could be either in-class or out-of-class examinations.

During in-class examinations, students are required to do independent work silently without any communication or interaction with their peers or copying from their work.

One of the underlying principles of in-class examination as a form of summative assessment is that the work that students produce must be absolutely their own.

This suggests the work that a student submits after an examination is an accurate reflection of his or her capability in relation to the subject matter that was examined.

In the African university context, most examinations are closed-book and in-class. And tacitly examination is regarded as the dominant assessment tool. The following are the forms that examinations take in African universities:

  • • Essay writing: This involves a choice of questions that require lengthy written answers.

  • • Multiple choice questions: Students are required to answer a number of questions either by selecting true or false, yes or no statements or selecting the appropriate statement from several statements marked by letters of the alphabet.

  • • Practicals: These are used mainly in science or technology courses to test practical or theoretical underpinnings of activities, procedures or approaches.

  • • Case studies: These are used principally in business and law courses and consist of descriptions of specific real-life issues or problems. Students are required to read, analyse and answer questions backed by their reasoning, theoretical knowledge, experiences or assumptions.

Any learning situation or activity in classrooms, lecture halls or laboratories in African universities inevitably ends up with examination and education considered inseparable. This has caused considerable concern among critical thinkers and education reformers on the African continent.

A sterling example is Professor Emeritus Olugbemiro Jegede’s call during an international conference on African universities in Accra, Ghana, last year to abolish examinations.

Arguments for and against examinations

Professor Jegede argued that examinations negatively affect the quality of African university education. According to him, only theoretical content knowledge and skills can practically be measured in examinations.

He also argues that the restricted time characteristic of examinations makes it almost impossible for students to relate what they have learned to the outside world.

Thus, the application of knowledge, skills and dispositions in the form of problem-solving, problem-framing, analysis and research that are vital to human capital development is not measured.

In examination-oriented settings, psychologically students tend to associate education exclusively with passing examinations. So students internalise the faulty belief that once they have successfully passed their examinations, they are well educated.

No wonder, then, that in African universities students boast of their grades in examinations rather than the skills and knowledge they possess and what they can do with them.

Professor Jegede observed that in African universities the major purpose of teaching and learning has been reduced to passing examinations. Accordingly, students put enormous time and effort into preparation for examinations relative to developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary for employment or lifelong learning.

Lecturers, professors and other instructors also spend a lot of time designing, supervising and marking examination papers.

Proponents of examinations may argue that they help students to be responsible learners who take their education seriously.

Other proponents of examinations may go further to say that examinations provide incentives for learning. For example, examination results are used for important decisions such as recognition of achievement and selection for postgraduate studies.

However, the first argument fails to recognise that examination is not the only assessment tool that can be used to cultivate in students a sense of personal or civic responsibility. The second argument is like placing the cart before the horse. There are criteria other than examinations for making judgements on awarding students a grade of A, B or C.

Consequently, it is not a convincing argument to say that examination results are important because they are used as the basis for making such decisions.

Memory over creativity

It should be stressed that in an education environment where examination is the only tool for measuring student learning, it is most likely that students would construe the primary purpose of education to be passing examinations.

Moreover, examination construed as the purpose of teaching and learning becomes well entrenched if it influences what should be taught and learned and how it should be taught and learned.

Furthermore, given the nature of examination in African universities as a closed-book, content-based and restricted time-framed assessment, it entails a great deal of memorising.

Accordingly, Professor Jegede argues that examinations encourage students to memorise facts to fulfil the desires of the examiners. Students who do not have the ability to recall facts are most likely to be unsuccessful in examinations. The consequences, according to Professor Jegede, are the destruction of creativity and development of thought.

It could also be argued that memorising facts is a positive experience as all learning involves some degree of memorising. It is a truism that learning involves some memorising, but learning is not de facto memorising.

It is indeed dangerous to reduce learning to mere memorisation in that it denies human beings’ ability to process, analyse, reflect, draw conclusions from and question information or data they receive from their environment. These are as a matter of fact the qualities that allow human beings to cultivate thought or intellect.

In addition, human beings are creative, innovative and inventive. Therefore, over the long term the exclusive use of examinations for assessing student learning may lead ultimately to the destruction of those fine qualities considered critical to human capital development and growth.

Lastly, Professor Jegede argues that examinations have the tendency to encourage students to cheat, steal and commit other malpractices as they internalise education as being the process of passing examinations.

Giraffing, for instance, the act of stretching or sticking out one’s neck to see another student’s answer sheet, is common in African universities during examinations. Also common is swapping, which involves an exchange of answer booklets to enable the smart student to write answers for her or his friend.

Certainly, some students will cheat, steal or plagiarise regardless of the tool used for assessing their learning, be it take-home assignments, in-class assignments, group or individual research projects, individual or group presentations, portfolios, debates or exhibition and fairs.

Nevertheless, examinations increase substantially the propensity for students to cheat and to participate in other malpractices.

Continuous assessment tools

This article is not necessarily an endorsement of Professor Jegede’s call for abolishing examinations in African universities. On the contrary, its objective is to advocate continuous assessment using a variety of tools.

Of course, examination is one of the assessment tools that can be used but its contribution to students’ final grade in a course should not exceed 25%.

This suggestion has three principal merits. First, it intends to make university education a real tool for development by shifting the focus on examinations to innovative assessment tools.

These innovative assessment tools such as projects, exhibition and fairs, research, debates, group or individual presentations, portfolios and performances have greater potential for assisting students to cultivate their intellect via analysis, critique, problem-framing, problem-solving, creativity and innovation.

Second, the shift to innovative-based assessment tools would enable African students to develop employability skills. Analytical, communication (presentation), problem-framing and problem-solving skills, for example, are crucial not only for the labour market but also for self-employment.

Finally, the shift in emphasis would allow African universities to develop courses or learning programmes that are responsive to the needs and issues in African society rather than those influenced by or amenable to examinations.

Furthermore, the use of a variety of assessment tools would ensure fairness, equity and reliability of assessment and encourage learning growth and lifelong learning. The same benefits would accrue by instituting a regime of continuous assessment of student learning throughout course sessions compared to the one short assessment common in most African universities.

Fidelia Fredua-Kwarteng works in government in Canada, as a senior program advisor. Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy consultant in Canada.