Write down everything you know … NOW

exam rooom

In the past few weeks the following things have happened that have annoyed me and made me reflect:

  • I completed an exam for my uni subject as part of my postgraduate studies
  • Year 10 students completed their School Certificate exams
  • Year 7 and 9 students completing yearly exams

For those who follow me on Twitter, they all know too well my opposition towards completing an exam for uni. The exam was for a subject called “Social networking and online communities”, and the exam consisted of multiple choice questions, short answer questions and one essay question. The subject was to teach us how to build and sustain a successful online community whose members share and collaboratively create knowledge. In my tweets and my uni forum posts, I complained how this end-of-semester test did nothing but assess our ability to memorise and regurgitate information. The test didn’t actually test my understanding of online communities or my ability to create and sustain online communities. For example I memorised that ethnography involved participant observation, but I have no idea what this means. However, I was able to memorise it and regurgitate it in the exam, so I got a mark for it. While the content of the uni course was actually quite interesting, studying for the exam ruined the learning experience.

Meanwhile, in my last lesson with my Year 10 class before the School Certificate exams, one student asked, “Do we have science after the School Certificate?” I said yes. This student replied “But what’s the point?”

That really upset me. This student saw the purpose of our science lessons as a way for her to pass a test. After the test, learning doesn’t matter. School is supposed to be a place where we nurture the curiosity of young people. School is supposed to be a place where students want to learn. School isn’t supposed to be somewhere you went to pass an exam and then somehow become “free”. What school has become though for many of our students is a place where they cram in as many facts as they can, spill it out in an exam and forget it as soon as they leave the exam room. And what for? So they can get a piece of paper at the end. As a uni student, I hated being treated this way. Besides educational institutions, where else would insist on someone writing answers as fast as they can in a set time frame as an accurate way of finding out what someone knows and can do? It’s not like you get the exam back either. All you get is a piece of paper with a grade and/or a number. You have no idea of which areas you are good at and which areas you can improve on (and how).

So why do schools do it? Why do we as teachers insist on exams?

I’m not saying that tests don’t have their place in education. Regular tests can give lots of useful information to students and teachers, but why can’t we have other assessments that hold the same value in the community as exams. Why can’t we use portfolios, interviews or collaborative assignments that are weighted the same as exams? There must be better alternatives than sitting our students in a hall and telling them “write down everything you know now … you have two hours”. With less emphasis on exams, students would probably enjoy learning at school a lot more. Isn’t that what school is for?

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