The Paradox of on demand exams

paradox-of-choice-1

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.

Alternatively:

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.

 

 

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Just answer the question!!! – but how?

Last month I looked at the best way to tackle a case study, but case study is only one type of exam, what about the more traditional style of exam question?

The world is full of great advice, lose weight, exercise more, stop smoking, just answer the question ….all these statements are very clear with regard to WHAT you should do but terribly unhelpful as HOW to do it.

The reason that students fail exams is simple, every examiner since the beginning of time will have made some of these comments.

Students fail exams because?

  • They don’t know the subject – inexcusable and the only reason you should fail
  • They don’t read the questions properly – and as a result  misunderstand what was being asked
  • They don’t  manage their time – so only complete 50% of the paper
  • They don’t write good answers – true this might be due to lack of knowledge but could also be the result of not knowing how much to write

The last three of these can be overcome with the use of good exam techniques. In this blog I want to share with you two simple techniques that I think will help.

How to read questions properly – Tip one, the rule of AND

Below is an exam question worth 12 marks. You don’t need to know anything about the subject so don’t worry.

Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment and the adjusted discount rate, and explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments. (12 marks)

The rule of AND is simple, where there is an AND in the question simply put a line through the AND then make the next statement the start of a new question.

Now read the question

1. Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment. and

2. (calculate) The adjusted discount rate, and

3. Explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments.                                                                                  

There are now three questions and because we have broken it up, it is so much clearer what you have to do.  If we were really clever we might be able to guess how many marks out of 12 relate to those three questions, a tip for another day perhaps.

How to write a good answer – Tip two, Define. Explain and Illustrate

Define Explain and Illustrate is a technique to help you write more using a simple structure.

Read this question

Discuss the proposal to repurchase some of the company’s shares in the coming year using the forecast surplus cash. Other implications of share repurchase for the company’s financial strategy should also be considered. (10 marks)

Firstly Define the technical words. In this example the technical word is repurchase, so firstly we need to say what a share repurchase is.

E.g.  a share repurchase is where a company buys back its own shares and as a result reduces the number of shares available on the market.

Secondly Explain in more detail.

E.g. the share buy back has to be financed in some way so one implication is that it will result in a reduction in the company’s cash balance. It also means that because there are fewer shares, earnings per share (eps) will increase.

And lastly and in many questions most importantly, Illustrate. This could be by way of a diagram an example or by referencing to the question in more detail. The reason this is so important is that this is how you will demonstrate to the examiner that you can apply the knowledge. If you don’t understand something you will not be able to apply it. The application section of the answer will often carry the most marks.

E.g. in the example above it is clear that the company is forecasting surplus cash, i.e. they have more money in the future than they need. Leaving this money in the bank is not considered sensible partly because the level of return that can be earned from the bank will be less than the shareholders require, it can also be interpreted as a lack of ambition on the part of the Directors. Blah blah blah

Depending on the detail provided in the question this final illustration section can go on and on. How much you write will depend on the marks available.

I hope you have found these two tips helpful, if you want more in the coming months just add a comment to this blog and I will oblige.

Epic exam failure – what not to put on your exam paper

And finally a short video showing students real exam answers – funny

Click here

 

Tipping the exam is bad….right?

No TippingFor me holidays are not a treat, they are an essential way of  recharging your batteries and provide an opportunity to re think ideas and put things into perspective. I am writing this particular blog whilst visiting Washington DC for a few days before moving onto the real America, Disneyland!

 
 
 

Exam tipping
Now whether its because I was having to get my head around the whole US tipping culture I don’t know, but I found my mind wondered to a conversation I had just before I came away as to the merits of predicting topics that will be on the next exam, so called tipping. This is a fascinating question, and one that is at the heart of the exam focused approach. The logic of the exam focused approach is simple (see  earlier blog for more detail) if the main objective is to pass the exam then the best preparation is to practice The questions that will be on that exam. But on the basis we don’t have The actual exam, then the next best preparation is to practice questions that “you think” will be in that exam, hence the tip.
In many other training environments this approach is common and well accepted. My daughter was taken on the routes most used by the driving test examiner. Although on the day she didn’t know exactly which route it was going to be. As a result of the training and familiarity she felt well prepared, more relaxed which in turn built her confidence, and I am sure this improved her performance on the day.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that if taken to an extreme, teachers might only teach what they think will be on that particular exam, the so called “teaching to the test”. This results in students not receiving a sufficiently broad or in-depth coverage of the subject and exposing them and their chances of passing to risk, heads you pass, tails you fail.
Application – Focus – Prioritisation 
However exam questions are great tools for application, focus and prioritisation. If a student is taught something and then set a question on that topic, they very quickly appreciate its relevance and value. It certainly helps with concentration, focus and  putting topics in order of importance. The, you can’t learn everything so stop worrying and get on with this question approach…..
Its all about time
If students have sufficient time they should of course learn everything. Although if you think about it you can’t learn “everything”, so there is always some degree of prioritisation.  But in the professional education sector, they don’t. Many hold down demanding jobs by day and study is part time. They look to the educator to give them some degree of priority in what to learn. This comes into sharp focus in the last few days before the exam, and that’s why they will ask for what is most likely to be on the exam, the tip.
So should the teacher tip
It’s all about degrees, at one end of the spectrum, it is very risky and narrows a students learning, at the other it gives focus and application in the last few days before the exam. Personally I would like to see  research on this area some solid evidence to focus the debate. There may be something out there but I have not read anything on this specific question.
But in the absence of such research my view is not to be too dismissive of tipping, it is very easy to completely write it off, leaving the choice of what to focus on just before the exam to the student, when the teacher is probably in a better position to give advice.
and if your interested – How to predict exam questions

 

And finally my  Holiday books 
I have just started Sal Khans The one world school house – very easy to read summary of how Salman Khan got to become “Bill Gates favourite teacher” and the logic behind what the Khan Academy does.
Thinking fast and slow and The chimp paradox are still as yet to be read.

 

Now where’s that bill or is it cheque….20% tip!