The Paradox of on demand exams


But which one is best when there is so much choice?

It is more blessed to give than receive, so it says in the bible, and Christmas is a time when you get to do this in abundance. What better feeling can there be when you find exactly the right present for that special person. You can even imagine the smile on their face when on Christmas day they rip open the paper to reveal the gift they either never new they wanted but did, or in their wildest dreams believed they could have or own.paradox-wonderful-christmas-time-1

BUT…….its not as easy as it used to be. Deciding on what you want to buy is one thing, finding the “best” or most suitable gift is another.

Paradox of choice

Although Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote his book called The Paradox of Choice over 12 years ago, most if not all of what he said is more relevant today with the explosion of choice created by the internet and advances in technology. He argued that choice rather than being good, and by the way the basis for freedom, was not necessarily bad, but did not always result in the best decisions being made or to be precise, the feeling that the best decisions had been made.

There were two reasons for this, firstly, too much choice creates paralysis, a delay in the decision-making process (see also Buridan’s ass) that can result in no decision being made at all, and secondly if you do decide, ultimately you will become less satisfied with your choice for a variety of reasons e.g. regret, opportunity cost and the escalation of expectation.

But what has this all got to do with examinations?

On demand exams result in their own paradox

In the world of professional examinations for many years’ students and employers have been asking for more choice as to when the exam can be sat. Its only tradition and inflexible systems that have created a need for testing to take place at specific times of the year. But with technology comes flexibility and that flexibility now means that some examinations can be sat when you want, not when the professional body or university decides. Driving tests have long followed the concept of, “on-demand” testing.

This choice is however resulting in a paradox. Students are taking longer to pass their exams but despite having more time results are not improving. You would expect that having additional time to study would improve exam success not reduce it.

One of the reasons for taking longer to pass is because it is now within the student’s power to change the exam date if they so wish. There are a number of good reasons for doing this, for example, work pressure, not feeling ready for the exam or that you dont know enough. Logical reasons but are they “good” reasons?

That all depends of course on the objective, but if the objective is to pass the exam quickly, then the answer is no.

The best of both worlds

Schwartz never concluded that having a choice was bad, just that it was not the end game. Ultimate choice is not the objective. He did say that we should perhaps stop thinking in terms of maximising choice but set some standards that can be used to help navigate the choices available.  In fact, this is borne out by some initial research into this area which shows that students increase their chances of passing if they set an exam date, (the choice) enable sufficient time to study but don’t change the exam date later (the standard). The choice when to pass can be set but neither the length of study nor the exam date should change.


Consult an expert – What do people do when they are faced with such a wide range of options they cannot decide, how about asking an expert? In this instance the expert would be the educational establishment or the examining body, what do they recommend?

Follow the norm – Data is now more readily available than ever before, many technologies make use of historical trends to make predictions or to offer advice when there are lots of choices. Everyone will be familiar with the web sites that suggest books or other items you should buy based on past behaviours. What worked best for you in the past, what did you do before that was successful or what do the most successful people do?

Now that we have cleared up how to make better decisions in a world of endless choices – I need to begin thinking about my New Year’s resolutions, oh dear if only there were not so many choices.

Happy new Year to you all

Click to watch Barry Schwartz TED lecture.



Blended – taking responsibility for your own learning

Taking responsibilityBlended course programmes are here to stay. The idea that studying comprises of both time in the classroom with others and time learning on your own using online or even traditional learning materials is certainly not new. Of course the purist will argue that blended learning has to or exclusively use online materials rather than a text book – no matter.

This blog is not about blended learning, more the implications of what studying on blended programmes means i.e. you have to study on your own and as a result take responsibility for how you learn.

Instructor led – easier

In a traditional classroom the teacher (instructor) stands at the front of the classroom and leads the learning. They tell you what to learn, when to learn, even how to learn.  They also dictate the pace and mood of the delivery. There is of course nothing wrong with this and many students really value it, in fact it’s their preferred method of learning. Of course its far from perfect, not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way, but let’s put that debate, or blog aside for another day.

With a blended programme the student has to leave the security of the classroom and enter the world of self managed learning (SML).

Student led (SML) -harder but more effective

Self managed learning gives the student great power, they can study what they want, perhaps not the subject matter but certainly the order, when they want, how they want etc. However as Spiderman* once said, with great power comes great responsibility. You now have to take responsibility for the result. This means if something doesn’t make sense it’s not the teacher’s fault it’s yours!

Its perhaps even more basic than that, you are also responsible for how long you spend studying, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. You can study on a Monday or Wednesday, or just the weekend. You can study for one hour or for 20 minutes. And there lies the problem, when it’s up to the individual a lot of people take the easy way out, the route of least resistance and put it off for another day.

However when you do take responsibility, the quality of the learning is significantly improved. Listening to the teacher is easy but not always that effective. The SMLearner has to set goals, monitor their performance and finally reflect, how well did they do compared with how well they thought they would? It is partly this process that makes the learning so good, but it will feel harder.

How to be a SML

These may all be worth covering in more detail in another blog but for now think of this as a check list.

  • Use a timetable – Google calendar is great for this. Put in all your key dates including exactly what you will do e.g. read chapters one to three – make notes – answer question 2,3 and 4.
  • Have a place to learn. This might seem obvious but you need somewhere that is quiet, plenty of space, good lighting, with little distraction. Perhaps most important is that you know that when you are in this room you feel ready to study.
  • Read carefully, I have written on this before. Underline key points as you go. Don’t just read, you have to think as well.
  • Make notes, even if you have pre- prepared ones. Once again I have written on the best way to do this. If you are following an e learning module make notes as you work through the online guidance.
  • Listen to your internal dialogue. When you are working alone just make sure that what you are saying to yourself is positive. Remember this is not about telling yourself everything will be fine, it’s about moving forward e.g. I just don’t understand this, what I need to do is read it again perhaps from another book.

Taking responsibility

Want to find out more about taking responsibility for learning – watch video 1video 2video 3. They are all less than three minutes long and well worth it.

PS *Of course Spiderman can’t really talk it was Stan Lee the writer of Spiderman, although Franklin D Roosevelt and others have also been quoted as saying this or something similar.