Student Perspective: Breaking with Tradition – Alternatives to Conventional Exams

It’s the most dreadful time of the year

With the students’ stress rising

And everyone telling you be of high spirit

It’s the most dreadful time of the year

For most students, the exam period is the most stressful part of the semester. The exam itself is the very manifestation of this stress, but the late-night study sessions at the library, the pressure of figuring out what is testable, memorizing big books, scrolling through hundreds of lecture slides, and at times pulling all-nighters just to feel an ounce more prepared to take an exam is also challenging.

Taking exams has been a big part of many of our college and university experiences, and has remained, for better or worse, the reigning assessment form throughout our education history. Based on assessment efficacy, exams are typically viewed as a good way of testing course knowledge, as they require students to study the same materials to answer the same, or at least similar, questions. Therefore, traditional exams provide us with a uniform, or in better terms, standardized mean, of assessing a large group of individuals, with each being examined on the same basic level of difficulty and understanding. To put it simply, an exam provides an even playing field, hence any disparity in performance or grades would be due to differences in students’ ability or time spent revisiting/studying the course material. While as a recent graduate, with modest social skills, I have yet to come across a single peer who actually enjoys exams, I can see the reason why they have become the dominant assessment form. As a comprehensive test of knowledge, exams are a very good method.

But mind you, when a certain Professaurus Rex, or P-Rex, invented exams as an assessment tool to evaluate his Studentaurus on their ability to hunt and forage, the world was a different place. This is my subtle and arguably humorous way of saying; exams are ancient and should not have survived the mass extinction event. While I am 99.9% sure a glass-wearing T-Rex scoring exams using a red pen with his tiny T-Rex arms didn’t invent exams as an assessment tool, I know that exams have some ancient roots.

Now did you know that at some point in time, being a government official was a matter of great prestige?! Shocking, I know, but almost 2000 years ago in ancient China, being a government official was of such high esteem that the only way of joining this elite band of officials was to pass examinations that were designed under the careful supervision of Emperor Zhang of Hen.

Now going by some other historical sources, the person behind the invention of exams as a torture device, er, I mean assessment tool, was the one and only American businessman, and philanthropist, Henry Fischel, sometime in the late 19th century. However, some other sources accredit the oft-dreaded invention to a man of the same name, Henry Fischel, who was a professor of religious studies at Indiana University during the early 20th century. Besides the historic finger-pointing to identify the tormentor, it’s important to realize that whenever and by whomever exams were designed, they were done during a time when education differed significantly from today.

Today the types of courses taught in colleges and universities cover a limitless range of disciplines, –  from math, science, statistics, coding, literature, pop culture, marketing, to fashion – just to name a few. The broad spectrum of courses and kinds of knowledge offered at educational institutions and sought by learners are incredibly broad and cannot all be assessed by the same assessment tool built and offered at a time where few universities existed in the world with an incredibly narrow range of offered subjects. Take the Cambridge hall of exams for example. Cambridge is one of the most widely recognized higher educational institutes in the world, and in the late 19th century, was approached by schools in England to administer a standardized test, which was, at the time, only available to male pupils. Hence, the first mass execution of students’ morale, I mean, The Cambridge assessment took place December 14th, 1958, on the subjects of English, Mathematics, Geography, History, Latin, German, and just a handful of other languages.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that just like Homo sapiens, education has also evolved, and will continue to do so. Our society, expectations, goals, needs, and values are ever-changing, and untapped markets for work and education are always unfolding. So then why in the name of a round Earth are we still resorting to a historic tool to shape, facilitate, and assess learning? The kinds of skillsets sought, desired, and required by society and employers today are wildly different from that of a year ago, let alone 150 years ago.

Assessments drive instruction and learning. Assessments inform instructors on what students know and don’t know, which sets the direction of a course. The way in which you deliver material and what you emphasize, be it factual knowledge to memorize or a particular skill set is also determined by how you will assess your students. In turn, what and how students learn depends, for the most part, on how they think they will be assessed. Assessments are also meant to inform both the instructor and the student on the progress of their learning. Feedback is essential in facilitating students’ growth, as it provides them with the opportunity to identify their areas of weakness. In this way, assessments must clearly match the content and nature of thinking, and the skills offered by the course and sought by the learner. A good rule of thumb is: if done well, assessments should not be a surprise to students. Aside from supporting student growth, assessments also support your skills as an instructor. Your students’ performance and accomplishments present you with the opportunity to determine how well their learning achieves your outcomes for a lesson.  Therefore, in a way, by sticking to just one assessment tool, you are not only limiting your students’ growth, but also that of your own.

If there was ever a time for reflecting, updating, and improving your assessment bag of goodies, it’s now.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, online testing brought on an entirely new level of intensity to exams. Between lockdown browsers, online proctoring, strict time limits, technical difficulties such as computer crashes or Wi-Fi outages, and an array of other issues, online testing became a new playing field.

Testing through exams in an online format is inherently unfair because while some students may complete a test easily from their device and location, we can’t assume all can.

On a more positive note, we have now administered at least a full academic year online in response to remote teaching during the pandemic. Moving forward from the emergency ‘how do I conduct my exam online’, instructors have now had time to choose, implement, and receive feedback on different assessment tools and methods. It has been a time of creativity and innovation in education. In this guide, we have hand-curated a collection of alternative assessment strategies, tools, and examples to help you on your journey to discovering exciting new means of supporting and evaluating your student’s learning!

So put on your best space outfit (rocket print pajama set accepted) and get ready to break with the traditional exam by blasting off Earth towards a galaxy of alternative assessments with your trusty guide in hand.

Sevda Montakhaby Nodeh
MSc Student, McMaster University



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