Why exam system sets students up to `fail at life'

5th December 2014 at 00:00
Allow googling and discussion in tests, Harvard academic urges

Students should be able to discuss answers and have access to the internet during exams, according to a leading US academic, who said too many young people were learning to pass tests only to "fail at life".

Eric Mazur, area dean of applied physics at Harvard University, believes that a major rethink is needed of the way pupils are assessed if schools and universities are to properly prepare them for the working world.

Students should no longer be forced to "sit in rows, separated by a gap and isolated from any source of information" when taking an exam, Professor Mazur said, and the practice of assigning grades should be minimised.

Instead, students should be able to openly discuss the solution to a problem and have access to Google. Assessment should be focused more on giving feedback than on ranking candidates by giving them an A, B or C grade, he added.

Professor Mazur, who talked to TES ahead of speaking at the annual conference of schools group SSAT in Manchester today, said the whole education system was geared towards students learning to pass exams.

"Students study not to learn, to achieve a deep understanding; they study to pass the test. In an ideal world that would be the same thing, but we don't live in an ideal world," he said. "There are lots of different ways of learning for a test, such as cramming information into your short-term memory, that don't translate into any lasting skill."

Exams needed to be structured differently, the academic added, and should move away from measuring students' powers of recall and towards preparing them for work.

"Let's mimic more real life in our assessment practice. If you look at students taking an assessment, they're set out in rows, separated by a gap and isolated from any source of information," Professor Mazur said. "Once you get your diploma you never face that situation again.

"At work you can call whoever you want, you can google anything, yet this is how we assess students. So we should let people talk to each other, we should let people work together. We consider it cheating in that setting but not cheating when they are doing their jobs. So why create this artificial environment?"

But Tim Oates, group director of assessment research and development at exam body Cambridge Assessment, said he did not agree with the notion that the "sole job" of exams was to prepare students for life.

"I believe that examinations are critical; that a form of external assessment is vital and should be administered in the most valid and robust way possible and kept up to date with the best in the world," he said. "We could test students for all sorts of things, we could test students until it came out of their eyeballs, but that is a very dystopian future."

The best schools, Mr Oates added, offered "broad and rich curricula", with students also taking part in extracurricular activities. "It's that oversight of total goods that schools convey that we should be focusing on. We shouldn't accept that the curriculum should be driven through tests."

Many teachers and headteachers are concerned that too much emphasis is placed on exam results for accountability purposes, and that often exams are too narrowly focused when it comes to judging students' capabilities.

Peter Kent, headteacher of the Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby and president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said exams in their current form did "reflect real life".

"We all have situations in our jobs where it is necessary to prepare for something and you must show a mastery of your brief," Dr Kent said. "But there is a danger of putting too much weight on examinations, where it goes to an extreme. There's been a direction of travel to move more and more to high-stakes examinations.

"If you look at Europe, they tend to have a more nuanced approach where they look at teacher assessment, practical skills, so you get a more balanced picture. That's what we should be more aware of."

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