With Year 10 and 11 exams starting next week many students and parents are probably asking the question, “Why do we have exams?”

Exams include many of the aspects we want from assessment.

What do we want from assessment?

Good assessment programs aim to provide a balanced, fair evaluation of each student. They achieve this in two ways. First, they use of a variety of strategies and tasks. This gives students multiple opportunities, in varying contexts, to demonstrate what they know and can do. It also enables teachers to be confident in the accuracy of their judgements about each student.

Second, tasks must be “fit for purpose”. Assuming a subject has a number of goals (knowledge to learn, skills to acquire), each task should be appropriate to the specific goal or goals it is assessing. This means that a task assessing base knowledge will look different to one assessing creativity.

At Drouin Secondary College we use a mix of assessment tasks that are most appropriate for each subject. Where do exams fit? And what are their benefits?

1. Exams focus on breadth

In most disciplines, there are specific bodies of knowledge that students are expected to learn. Physics students might learn about forces, while history students might learn about the cold war. Exams enable us to accurately test students’ breadth of understanding of these topics.

Critics of exams often instead promote “deep”, “rich”, and “authentic” assessment tasks. These are typically project-based tasks that draw on students’ creativity and interest. For example, history students might be asked to choose and research a historical character in depth. Business studies students might be asked to design the pitch for a new business seeking venture capital.

These tasks develop several important higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis and decision-making. However, they’re not alternatives to exams. They do different things. And this is exactly what we want: multiple, different tasks to maximise students’ opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do.

We also want fit-for-purpose. Where breadth of knowledge is important, we want assessment tasks that target this breadth. We want our future doctors to know of the entire human body. We want our future teachers to know a full repertoire of teaching and learning approaches. Exams can help achieve this.

2. Exams are harder to cheat on

Exams are also useful for a very different reason: they are harder than essays, assignments and projects to cheat on. It is clear that plagiarism is a serious problem for schools. The internet makes cheating easy.

Drawing on our characteristics of good assessment, it is impossible to provide a balanced, fair evaluation of a student’s performance if the student has paid someone else to complete their work for them or has just “Googled” their assignment.

3. Exams do enhance learning

Thirdly, and on a more positive note, there is evidence that both studying for and sitting exams deepens learning.

Studying is like exercising. When one exercises, the muscles in use grow stronger. Likewise, the process of searching through one’s memory and retrieving the relevant information strengthens that memory pathway for future uses. This means that when newly qualified teachers, doctors, lawyers, or accountants come to retrieve the information they need, it is – as a consequence of having been practised previously – now easier to access.

IMG-eppinghaus-retention-curves

So, how can we best make use of this “practice effect” for memory? Research tells us that learning is particularly strong when students self-test. Rather than passively reading and remembering by rote, we want our students to study by forming appropriate questions, searching memory for relevant responses, and knitting this information together into an appropriate answer.

We think this third benefit of exams is the most exciting. Exams don’t just provide a targeted, fit-for-purpose opportunity for students to demonstrate what they know: they also have the power to enhance what students know.

4. Exams are essential to success in Year 12.

Start with the end in mind.

Success in Year 12 is still largely determined by how well students do on end of year exams. Like it or not, this is the reality, so we need to develop our exam skills.

Practice makes perfect. Our exam program at Year 10 and 11 follows the same processes as VCE exams. To prepare students for the high-stakes exams they have to do at the end of Year 12 we get students to complete their exams in assigned seats, under exam conditions following VCAA rules; Bound books, Clear Bottles, Cover sheets, Reading Time.

We prepare our students for exam success.
Year 10 and 11 Exams in 2017 start on Wednesday 31st of May.

References: http://theconversation.com/exams-might-be-stressful-but-they-improve-learning-35614

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