Exams are just finishing up at the University of Queensland and the grim business of marking is well under way. I’m an observer of the process these days, since my research fellowship doesn’t involve running any courses (though I give a fair number of guest lectures in economics, political science and other subjects). Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a student, the whole system of examinations and marks was one of the big targets of radical critique; even if relatively minor in the great scheme of things, exams loomed large in our lives, and seemed like a symbol of much that was wrong with society.

That kind of debate seems to have disappeared entirely. While a variety of alternatives to exams have been tried, the pressure to cut costs has driven most Australian universities back to near-total reliance on exams, and, within that, to heavy use of multiple choice and short-answer tests.

But I’m more interested in looking again at the fundamental question of why universities and schools spend so much time and effort on assessment. One possible explanation, is that they provide useful feedback to students on how they are doing, and to the university itself to guide things like admission to later courses. I don’t buy this at all. Feedback provided after you’ve finished a course isn’t much use, after all.

Is it to provide a service to employers? If so, couldn’t they run their own tests? Or is to give students a spur to effort? I guess the last of these is closest to the mark.

30 thoughts on “Marks

  1. I guess it depends on the course of study. I’d be very worried getting an engineer to build me a bridge if I had no way of asessing whether he’d passed his training or not. Likewise a visit to a GP. Do we need to grade an Eng. Lit. degree? Maybe, but no damage done if we don’t.

    I also think competition is a very strong motivational tool – helps focus the students’ minds. Grades in exams creates substantial competition amongst students.

  2. Andrew,

    You’re slightly missing the point. No engineer or GP would get anywhere near a bridge design or strep throat examination without years of peer supervision and on the job training in a junior role. The 2 or 3 hour exam based part of their training is only for the first few years of a long and laborious winnowing process.

    The central problem of exams, being only a few hours long, is that they can never probe for deep and useful knowledge and how to apply it. They can only cover a fraction of a course in any depth, so to some extent they can be a lottery on what it was you got around to learning well (or were motivated by). Now maybe that’s okay because there’s a good correlation with people doing well in continuous, deeper, assessment tasks and exam ability, though I have known a few folk terribl at exams (nerves) but quite brilliant in their fields. It just took them a few extra years of slog to get where they wanted.

    The job of an educator is to motivate a student to _want_ to learn the subject matter. Exams are a big stick and only partially successful at that, especially for boring but compulsory courses the student may see little value in. It takes many years to ever get really good at something anyway, so exams are at worst a moderate impediment to a student finally getting good at something (assuming they know what they really want to do int he first place).

  3. As a recent (just pre-Quiggin era, I think) UQ economics graduate who is now doing a masters at an overseas university (and just received his exam marks today), this is an interesting post.

    Reflecting on this very question in the run up to my recent exams, I was surprised how much of my economics degree was assessed by multiple choice. I was always quite good at guessing the answers to poorly thought out multichoice exams, so they never really inspired fear or motivation (unlike my recent masters written exams).

    I think multiple choice *can* be quite an effective method of assessment, but in the exams I did at UQ, it wasn’t at all. I think it tended to test general intelligence rather than mastery of the course material.

  4. My department decided that the focus on assessment by exam was justified by the quantity of plagiarism taking place.

    I don’t think that exams motivate many students to work. If they work more than minimally it’s because they’re interested in the subject. So many of them don’t even seem to see a connection between their job prospects and a better than average mark.

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