Rethinking the Purpose of Exams

Updated article originally published March 28, 2017.

Higher education is full of innovative approaches, with a myriad of new developments in pedagogy, EdTech, and course design—all in the name of enhancing teaching and learning. Yet, at the end of term, most courses still turn to the classic proctored exam as the method of evaluation. Even in courses where there are definitive moves towards developing skills and more authentic assessments, the exam still prevails. The question then becomes, why does the exam remain the same? To answer this, consider both the strengths and weaknesses of the exam.

Exam Fundamentals

Exams—like all other forms of assessment—are tools for demonstrating evidence of student learning. This is what makes them popular as cumulative assessments in courses or as standardized entrance evaluations. While educators more regularly associate assignments and projects with specific learning outcomes, final exams remain isolated tests measuring what has been discussed and taught in lecture. This is the element of exams that typically incurs the most criticism due to the number of significant pitfalls that stem from this approach. But what is the alternative?

Barbra J. Tewksbury, writing in the Journal of Geoscience Education, details her teaching experiences moving away from examinations. As students may be familiar with classes structured around exams, Tewksbury notes that “successful teaching without exams requires the use of alternative structures that are at least as effective for both motivation and assessment.” Guided by this premise, Tewksbury assigned students a written or oral assessment each week that required a detailed synthesis of theory and data; she found that this method produced the following positive results:

  1. The level of knowledge comprehension required for these written and oral assessments was, generally much higher than that of an exam.
  2. Whereas with exams students tend to “cram” and learn material close to the exam date, with the more frequent assessment model, students engaged with the course material prior to class, which helps learning and allows for richer discussion on course themes. In essence, learning is not strictly for the exam, and it is properly conducted over the entire term.

These insights may be something to consider as a way around the final exam. However, there may also be ways to rethink final exams themselves, rather than throw them out entirely.

Exams as Learning Experiences

To fully discuss evaluation methods, it may be useful to revisit why exams are popular in the first place. The nature of exams does make them the clearest and simplest form of assessment. Moreover, their longstanding presence means most educators stick to the exam model by virtue of it being the model they were tested with. Exams also lend clear performance data; accordingly, they may be favored by administrators.

Beyond these rationales, the use of exams may be better justified through an approach that sees them as learning opportunities rather than pure measurements. Fortunately, this approach requires no significant exertion of effort or design. To focus on using exams as learning opportunities, give some exam prep work by identifying each exam’s intent and tying that to a specific learning outcome. Once you identify these two pedagogical factors, the appropriate format (e.g., multiple choice, essay, proofs) and structure (e.g., in-class, take-home, two-stage) will become clear.

For example, when designing an exam for a senior-level accounting class, it is reasonable to infer that most students intend to earn their professional accounting designations after graduation. Therefore, by designing the final assessment to be similar in question type and format to an official CPA exam, student course outcomes will be measured by also being aligned with professional expectations. This makes exams more useful and offers students something beyond what they may retain from “cramming”.

The Future of Exams

While exams may, at times, be supplanted by other types of assessments, or supplemented and given less weight, they are still the main way to test students’ learning of course material. This status does not mean that the nature of exams should continue to follow traditional thinking. By framing exams more around learning outcomes, they retain their value as measurements of educational success while also becoming more integrated into course learning and helping students.

Interested in more on assessment design? Check out our other blogs on the topic: