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Putting the ‘Ex’ in Exams?

I didn’t finish Uni quite how I thought I would (to put it mildly). Ignoring, for now, the slightly terrifying world I’ll be graduating into (which is something I’m getting quite good at), one big change was in the way that the University determined the classification that would come with my degree. Instead of spending a total of nine hours sweating profusely in the Coombe Dingle sports hall, wishing that memorising my candidate number last minute hadn’t pushed that really useful reference out of my brain, I got an entire month to approach six essays at a slightly less breakneck pace. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on this alternative assessment method, I’ve tried to think about what I preferred, what I didn’t like, and whether there might be lessons that can be learned from such a huge and sudden overhaul. Obviously, we can’t just ignore the Global Pandemic in the room, but I think there are still conclusions to be drawn, even if they do come with a very large asterisk.

Gif of Dumbledore cancelling exams in the first Harry Potter Film
A boy can dream…

A bit of background about how BSc Biologists are assessed:

In second year, we do a mix of compulsory modules in 1st term, followed by optional modules in second term. It varies a bit, but the general assessment pattern is 40% coursework in the form of lab reports (or sometimes posters or podcasts) and 60% exam. The exams are hour-long single question essays (from a choice of three). Credit is given for independent thought and extra reading, but I personally felt from feedback and question style, that information recall was what was primarily being tested. In third year, non-exam assessment comes in the form of a practical project and report, and a literature review (on a different subject). All 6 optional modules are 100% exam-based. The third year exams are an hour and a half and tend to be framed in the form of suggesting an experimental design (for one out of two scenarios). There’s more of a focus on knowledge application and problem solving than 2nd year, but they still require the inclusion of large amounts of core lecture content and memorising key references.

The alternative assessment put in place due to coronavirus was to give us the questions we would have been given in the final exams (not heavily altered, as far as I’m aware), but now we had a month to complete and hand in all six, with a 1,500 word limit for each. The Biological Sciences department listened to student concerns, and, although it might not have been perfect, tried to find a solution that worked for as many people as possible, accounting for the drastically different situations students had found themselves in a result of the pandemic.

The Good

For me, the alternative assessment was, without doubt, a far better learning experience. I could take a more thoughtful, measured approach to the questions, gained a much better understanding of what I was writing about, and did deliberate, relevant extra reading. Ultimately, I wrote what I feel was much closer to the best answer I could write, as opposed to the best answer I could cobble together with the scraps of information that happened to be at the forefront of my memory in an hour and a half exam. It’s been drilled into me since I first set foot on campus that the biggest mistake students make in exams is not actually answering the question being asked. I’ve often been guilty of this – but it’s not always because I didn’t take enough time to read and understand the question. It’s usually because I haven’t memorised enough information or key references to answer the question being asked, so had to try to very indelicately jam the good information I did have into somewhere it didn’t quite belong. Because when you are sitting at that desk in Coombe Dingle, it feels like a complete, if slightly tangential, answer is better than just writing ‘sorry I only have so much capacity for information and by sheer bad luck, the questions you’ve asked are on the bits that I couldn’t fit in my brain, please give me a 2:1?’. With more time in the alternative assessments, and my notes available, I was able to actually answer the question being asked, using every tool available to me.

In terms of skills, I had more time to plan and think about what I wanted to include, and could look through notes and lectures critically to find only the relevant information. I found it much easier to make links between lectures and units because I had more time to let my thoughts develop and had access to all the information I needed. When I was searching for extra reading I was able to go really in depth, because I knew the question I was searching for more information on, as opposed to the sort of ‘scattershot’ approach I take before exams. I generally end up hedging my bets, and finding a relatively arbitrary set of papers that seem like they would be applicable quite broadly or have an author with a funny name so it’s easier to remember. Essentially, it was a more active process – I was doing a lot more with the information I had. Although I could be more selective in my revision, I don’t think that this was any detriment to the amount of information I retained. I don’t feel traditional exams are any better for information retention and overall understanding because they force you to get a very broad overview of a whole module that you’ll forget almost immediately. I suppose it’s a quality vs. quantity argument, and the alternative assessment wins hands-down on quality.

The wellbeing side of things is where the big ‘global pandemic’ asterisk comes in. In theory, I believe this style of exam was much better for my mental wellbeing. If nothing else, the entire exam process, from waking up on the day to walking out of the exam hall, is very stressful and anxiety-inducing, and not having to do that was a huge relief. But more than that, having time meant that if I was struggling to write a question, or feeling like I didn’t know enough, I could stop, put my laptop away and do something else, or start on another question. I got to set my own schedule and approach the questions how I wanted to and needed to depending on how I felt that particular day. Revision feels like a never-ending task – you could always be doing more: watching one last lecture, finding three more extra reading papers, going over those notes one more time. With these essays you have a progress bar – you can see how much you have achieved and make better decisions about when enough work is enough and you need a break or change of scenery. It also makes it far easier to plan work around other important commitments like jobs and care responsibilities.

The Bad

That said, the potential wellbeing benefit of this coursework style assessment is a double-edged sword. I don’t suffer particularly from perfectionism, as you may be able to tell from my rather rambling blogs, but for students that do, this style of assessment could be very difficult to approach. Because, in some ways, you have much longer than you need, you can keep tinkering and keep tweaking and keep agonising over every little detail to the point where it could become detrimental to both the quality of your work and your mental wellbeing. I heard about people entirely re-writing essays the night before the deadline because they were panicked that they had missed some key information and clearly that’s not good for wellbeing or academic success. If this style of assessment is used again, setting very clear expectations of students is critical, and this might mean re-assessing whether marking criteria are actually useful to students and working with students to make them better. I think students will need to have access to essays from previous years, along with justifications of the marks they achieved, so they can see what they need to do. And for some students who find the pressure of exams to be helpful, maybe the department could offer exam-style sessions, where students can come in and work under exam conditions for a specified time, with the expectation they will submit soon after the end of the session.

There is also the issue of selective revision. That is – students may be able to avoid attending teaching, then just replay the couple of lectures they need to at the end of the year, because they already know the question they will be answering. The easiest way to avoid this is to set questions that require entire unit understanding, and design units in a way that they fit together and information builds on previous information. For most of my essays, I dipped into my notes for basically all lectures as I was sure there would be something relevant. If lecturers are seriously concerned that attendance will drop off if students are able to pick and choose what they learn, maybe they could ask whether they are creating enough value in their teaching outside of simply providing information that is needed for exams (that they themselves set)?

The Not So Ugly

A week or two after sacrificing a goat to the gods of Virgin media, and praying my WiFi would hold out to submit all of my essays, we received an email from the department asking us for our feedback on the assessment. This was super positive to see and I’m really glad that Biological Sciences is finding out what students actually thought. I’m sure a lot of people felt differently to me about the new assessment and it’s important as many voices are heard as possible. I really hope that every part of the university that used some kind of alternative assessment has done the same – maybe assessment this year doesn’t have to be a one-off deviation from the norm, but a real chance to learn and improve the way students are assessed. And if you’re a student, and you haven’t been asked for your thoughts, tell them anyway!

A phrase that I heard from nearly every biologist I talked to during our assessment was “at least it’s better than exams”, and this was often precluded by “it’s not great, but…”. The university has shown that it can and will change the way it approaches assessment in response to students’ concerns. We need to stop asking the question ‘why should we move away from exam-based assessment’, and start asking ‘if we were designing assessment from scratch, putting student learning and wellbeing first, would we end up with the current system?’.

I wonder whether we would end up with a one-size fits all approach, or would students be able to choose a system of assessment that best suited them, their personal circumstances, and their learning goals?

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow: Active, Collaborative Learning

1 thought on “Putting the ‘Ex’ in Exams?”

  1. ‘if we were designing assessment from scratch, putting student learning and wellbeing first, would we end up with the current system?’.

    I think this is a really important question; there are a number of reasons that exams have predominated in higher education for so long:

    Firstly, because (provided you check who is sitting the exam), it’s much harder for the work not to be the student’s own.

    Secondly, since everyone is sitting the same paper at the same time, the assessment might be seen as “fair” (more on that later)

    Finally, (and probably most importantly) – it’s the form of assessment that many lecturers (and many students) have experienced in the past themselves – so why change a system that worked for you!

    Of course, exams are not necessarily fair. In Bloom’s taxonomy, an exam often essentially attempts to assess all levels; from remembering and understanding to creating evaluating and synthesising. However, in assessing the foundational material (remembering), it is possible that students are effectively prevented from accessing the higher levels.

    You could imagine a Mathematics question of the following form:

    a) State de Moivre’s theorem (this is the remembering element)
    b) Prove de Moivre’s theorem, and discuss the implications (this might test some of the higher levels, such as understanding, synthesis and evaluation)

    Now, in order to access part b), you need to have memorised a). This sort of question raises other problems, as it is possible that you can actually answer part b), but because you might not remember what de Moivre actually said, you might not be able to demonstrate this!

    If exams are to be meaningful, I’ve long believed that there are benefits from making them “open book” – not least as this becomes a little more authentic. If you are asked, in a job, to provide an argument for a particular policy, if there are elements that you cannot remember, you would simply “Google” them, or look them up in a book. The added value is the synthesis and the evaluation of the topic.

    For units where we are looking for evaluation and synthesis, why not provide much more open questions, with time to spread your wings. These do mean that students’ might need some constraints (just to ensure that they don’t spend all of their time on that one assessment), but it can give a real experience of creating new knowledge, and collating, evaluating and synthesising ideas!

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