Seven arguments against exams

“Relatively few of the perceived academic benefits of high-stakes examinations have a strong evidence base,” Raoul A. Mulder,  Sarah French and Ashton Dickerson (Uni Melbourne) argue in a new paper

It’s an assumption that needs challenging now, they write, given that the assessment cheating potential of AI technologies is driving some institutions back to traditional exams.

And so they scoped the scholarship on the seven arguments for exams, finding:

Memory recall and knowledge retention: “despite the benefits of test-enhanced learning, it is also well known that retention of knowledge demonstrated in exams can be short-lived”

Student motivation and learning: “if student motivation to study stems from a desire to rote-learn information to perform well on an examination, extrinsic motivation is activated, but not intrinsic or autonomous motivation, which has been shown to be far more important for student learning and long-term memory acquisition”

Authenticity and real-world relevance: “the information-limited, high-pressure context of high-stakes examinations is far removed from most authentic workplace situations”

Validity and reliability: “the absence of a culture of validation, the difficulty of achieving high validity, the evidence for low consequential validity, and the myriad factors that can affect the reliability of examination performance means that there is a troubling lack of validity and reliability evidence underpinning the culture of high-stakes, ‘one-chance’ examinations”

Academic misconduct and contract cheating:  are hard in invigilated closed-book exams but alternative assessments can protect integrity. Vivas, individual or group oral and video presentations, or video presentations “can be verified with a relatively high degree of confidence.” Although, the author acknowledge these are labour intensive

Stress, anxiety, and wellbeing:  the impact of these on exam performance is not assured but their impact in student motivation is concerning

Fairness and equity: “ ‘one-chance,’ time-pressured final examinations have exclusionary effects and disadvantage marginalised student groups.”

Key take-outs from the paper:

  • “well-designed examinations in a revised format do have a role to play in the curriculum in some subjects, especially when they are formative and low-weighted”
  • “the pronounced lack of empirical evidence for the pedagogical benefits of high-stakes examinations suggests that they are employed primarily for reasons related to cost, efficiency, practicality, scalability, and administrative convenience”
  • “the use of high-stakes examinations becomes particularly problematic when they dominate the curriculum at the expense of other valuable forms of assessment”
  • “designing assessment practices that encourage continuous and high-quality learning while supporting student wellbeing is a challenging but important task that requires creative and innovative approaches”



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