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Are Exams Really the Best Method for Measuring Learning Outcomes?

Photo by: David Hawgood

As an English and American Literature and Creative Writing student, I luckily escaped exams in my final year and was instead, fully assessed on my essays and projects.

For me, not having exams was great because exams really aren’t my strong point. In previous years I had three exams in total, so I got off lightly. But, I have always thought Literature exams ask for too much. Literature exams require students to remember books, and books, and books worth of information. Being asked to go through such a lengthy process and then to write a high quality essay in the space of an hour, is almost too much for my mental capacity.

If I get a bad grade – it doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, it just means what you’re asking me to do is physically and mentally impossible.

Just because I dislike exams however, doesn’t mean I am entirely against them. I do believe, given the right subjects, exams can be beneficial. I praise the University of Kent for making the wise decision to rule out exams for third year Literature students.

In the ‘real’ working world I will have more time and I will very rarely have to sit in an exam-type setting again with limited resources. At my fingertips I will have a wealth of knowledge accessible through Google and other sources. With these unlimited resources we can perfect our skills with practice. Whereas, in an exam, we remember information for a week, but then entirely forget it.

Back to the point I made earlier, exams can be good given the right subject. What subjects may these be then? One subject I strongly agree would benefit from exams is Journalism. Journalism students are expected to type 100 words a minute of very high quality work, which to many people seems almost impossible to imagine. The exams however, would single out those with skills, from those lacking relevant skills.

For courses like Drama or Graphic Design, I think exams make less sense. For Drama students I’d say practice is key – otherwise, can it be called Drama?

And for obvious reasons, Graphic Design students need other resources and project-type tests to show their strengths. Language exams like French, Italian etc. seem a definite yes. They need to show they’ve perfected the written word as well as the spoken.

Maths? This baffles me a little. In the working world if you’re stuck on a maths equation, you’ll be able to access the formula or answer somehow. There are plenty of web resources, programmes, apps, products and books these days that will help you solve an equation.

In jobs we are taught again, the rights and wrongs of a job and what is expected of the role. Of course degrees and experience are key in grounding information and skills within us, but are exams really a test of knowledge if we are continually in a state of learning and adapting information to our surroundings? If exams are useful in helping some people learn information – then great, that works for you. But for me, I think essays and projects have adequately equipped me for the working world, and with this prior information I can adapt and mould it to my future job role.

So my final stance is, yes exams can be great given the right subject, but for others, seem a bit pointless.

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