The thing about exams

Over the last 10 years there have been some massive changes to assessment in Post Primary schools in Northern Ireland.  But, these changes are not quite what you think might have happened.   If you had asked me ten years ago – I would have assumed that by now, we would still have elements of Geography coursework somewhere – either at GCSE or A Level.   I would have assumed that we would be using computers in some shape or form to complete tests/ exams/ coursework in a controlled environment.   But things have gone in a slightly different track.

Ten years ago – if you were doing a GCSE in Geography you would have completed exam papers in both Physical and Human Geography and you would have completed a piece of Geography coursework that was worth 25% of the overall total.  There was a choice of tiers – Foundation and Higher to cater to the particular literacy needs across the variety of pupils.   In fact, most GCSE subjects contained sizeable chunks of coursework and then ‘controlled assessment’.   Yes – there were issues with this.  There were centres that did not fully follow the rules precisely and maybe had too many ‘perfect’ pieces of work.  But – generally these pieces of work allowed pupils who maybe struggled with exams to get a bit of confidence for themselves through some hard work.   Instead of tightening up on the moderation system – most of these opportunities for coursework were dropped.  Now – we have a Fieldwork paper – so students ‘have’ to be great at exams.  If you cannot think fast, write fast and depend on a really quick recall – you are sunk.


The wider issue though is . . .  are exams actually fit for purpose?   What actually do exams test?   The current Year 13/AS in Geography involves two 1 hour 15 min papers on Physical and Human Geography.  Both are very tight for time.   Time management and working quickly and effectively are extremely important for success.   There are 3, 15 mark short questions followed by 2, 15 mark essays.  Each needs to be completed in 15 minutes flat.  Candidates have to write TWO big essays in 15 minutes.   It is not easy.  Students need to think and write fast.   But, the question is – is this actually a test of understanding and application or is this just a test of memory?  Have we lost (have we ever had) a method of assessment that tests how students think instead of what they can remember? Many talented students can learn off case studies from textbooks and teacher notes – but do they really understand the intricacies of the place?  Have they learned to interrogate the data and come up with their own independent conclusions?

My daughter is just about to go into her final year of a university course.  She has not done one exam at all.  Yet, the rigour and discipline required for the attainment of a university degree is no less than if she had exams.  Some of the pieces of work she has been having to wrestle with and write up as essays and pieces of work have been incredibly difficult.  They have allowed her the opportunity to research and to organise and develop her own thinking and ideas.   Is it important that exams are part of learning?   Are exams the be-all-and-end-all for us to measure progress and work out who is doing well and who needs to work a bit harder?

The day when I wrote this –  was the first Geography exam of the year.   I had some pupils who were physically sick with worry.  Great students with a great knowledge and understanding were totally stressed.   There is only so much reassurance you can give.   There is only so much preparation and confidence you can try to inspire in your classes.   Surely we can come up with a better way of trying to grade and assess our pupils as they move from one stage of learning to the next.

So – my question is – can we start looking to see if we can consider how we find a way of moving back towards an approach which uses and integrates coursework?  Can we shift thinking away from an approach that values exams (and memory) versus other methods that will help students think, explain and justify their opinions.

What do you think?


Privacy Settings

About timmanson

I’m a teacher/ leader/ writer/ geographer/ husband/ dad/ Believer/ son/ brother

Source link