Are exams fit for purpose (part two) – what are the alternatives?

You dont fatten pigs 2

Last month’s blog came to the conclusion that examinations* are fit for purpose or at least “a purpose.”

They provide the student with a clear objective to which they can direct their efforts and focus attention and are a transferable measure of competency that can be assessed at scale. The “at scale” point is important as there are many ways of assessing competence but few that can cope with the need to test thousands of students all at the same time.

The main problem with examinations is that they don’t always examine what is most valued; the method of assessment often has significant limitations as to what it actually tests and the results are presented in league tables that give a far too simplistic view of success.

I am not sure we can resolve all of these but it might be worth exploring other options, specifically alternative methods of assessment. For example If you change the method of assessment from a formal, often timed written exam to say a portfolio of work, not only do you change the method of assessment but you will change what is being examined, two birds with one stone perhaps.

Different methods of assessing competence

Open book exams

Open book assessment offers a way of testing application rather than memory. Students have access to a text book that contains information relevant to what they are being asked. It’s the use of knowledge that is important, not the knowledge itself. The idea of open book could easily be adapted, why not allow students access to the internet during the exam, they could look up anything they wanted. Is this not more representative of what happens in the real world?

Take out exams

Similar to the above the so called “take out exam” allows the student to take the exam away to work on at home using whatever resources they prefer, books, internet etc. They return the next day with a completed answer. This can work better than you might at first think so long as you have a robust mechanism to detect plagiarism. There are several very good software packages that can spot the most sophisticated types of copying.

Case studies/simulations

A case study provides an environment for the student to demonstrate they can use their knowledge to solve problems and or offer advice in a virtual world. Most case studies tend to be written but this is one area that we could see some clever and affordable use of technology to better simulate the real world.

Performance tests

In a performance test students are required to demonstrate a skill/process, create a product etc while being observed by the assessor who will evaluate the performance. A great example of testing ability to apply knowledge but suffers from the subjectivity of the assessor and has limited application at scale.

Portfolios

Portfolios are most often collections of the student’s work that demonstrate their ability to perform a specific task. These can be simulations of the real world or portfolios of work actually undertaken on the job. A portfolio can include written documents, emails, audio or video recordings, in fact anything that provides evidence as required by the assessor.   Portfolios are perfect for assessing application but the process of assessment is expensive and not without bias.

Viva Vocal – (living voice) Oral exam

Often used to test PhD students, an oral exam gives the assessor chance to question the student. This is a very effective method where you are looking for higher level skill and depth of understanding. As identified last month it’s probably one of the oldest forms of assessment.

Digital badges – capturing the learning path

Being awarded a badge as recognition of achievement is something many will be familiar with especially if you were a boy scout or girl guide. But digital badging is new and becoming increasingly popular because of the internet. A good example would be linkedin and the badges awarded to you by others as recognition of certain skills.  Many of the assessment methods above provide a first past the post type of assessment, you pass and that’s it. Digital badging on the other hand is a form of lifelong assessment that evolves along with your career.

Digital badging for me is one of the most exiting forms of assessment and I am not alone Nasa have been using digital badging since 2011. Read more about digital badging.

Assessment in the future

Scanning for competenceThe list above is far from comprehensive and many other equally valid types of assessment exist e.g.  Role plays, Slide presentations, Assignments etc but what might assessment look like 15 years from now. Well how about using MRI scans to identify which parts of the brain are being used?  Not sure it will catch on but it would provide some interesting evidence as to how the student is getting to the answer, simple memory or a genuine and deep understanding .

*Examinations defined as a written test administered to assess someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skills

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