Four Reasons Exams are Ineffective in Measuring Learning


Most education systems across the world rely on exams as a means of improving and assessing student learning. My entire middle and high school career in Pakistan was controlled by high-stakes examinations. Somewhere in the race between preliminary exams and final exams, my classmates and I crammed educational content, only to forget it days later. If you asked us to explain concepts from high school now we would most likely fail, and surprisingly this is not uncommon for most adults. This makes one wonder; why are high stakes exams actually ineffective for measuring knowledge acquisition?

  1. Lack of Spaced Repetition

End of course exams encourage procrastination as students are provided with a deadline in terms of an exam date, and they know they are allowed to do self-paced learning. In other words, students know they can get away with minimally learning academic content and concepts before the exam day, since they are not required to implement their learnings beforehand. This is especially true when the exam carries all or most of the weight for grading, as most students study from “test to test” (Klemm, 2007). 

The more effective version of year-end exams that actually work, are spaced out and more frequent tests. Research suggests that required testing assists students in managing their time (Wesp, 1968). Regular tests at spaced intervals encourage students to study and recall information at more frequent intervals. This makes sense as repeating learning material from previous tests and exams naturally makes the knowledge stick longer. At Minerva University, continuous assessment in the form of polls and quizzes within each class are the norm. Although it is challenging for students, having clear goals and knowledge requirements for each class helps me pace my studies more effectively.

  1. Rote Learning and Cramming

Rote memorisation and cramming are popular techniques used by students as the deadline for the exam approaches. They are easier ways of retaining the knowledge short-term and acing the exams. However, rote learning is widely deemed both inefficient and non-conducive to “thinking” (Klemm, 2007). Moreover, knowledge acquired via rote memorisation is seldom durable in terms of long-term memory retention. 

Projects and assignments may instead be used to measure academic performance. They encourage students to apply concepts from the learned material in new and creative ways. This application of knowledge learned in one context to another is known as “far transfer” and is considered the “holy grail” of learning. (Kosslyn, 2017) As a Minerva University student, I have noticed that an emphasis on far transfer helps students think deeply about knowledge learned instead of interacting with it on a surface level, as is the case with rote learning.

  1. Knowledge Retention vs. Knowledge Application

One core component missing from our education systems is that of the application of the knowledge acquired. Simply rephrasing memorized concepts from textbooks is not ideal “application” as it does not encourage deep thinking about the learning materia. The more deeply we engage with learning material, the better we are at retaining it . When knowledge application is done well, students must apply foundational concepts learned theoretically in the classroom to projects and internships. One of the tools we learned in the first year in our natural sciences course, for example, is #rightprobplem which helps us analyze any given problem in terms of its initial and goal states, obstacles and scale. However, I have used this concept in assignments and everyday work in many different fields including businesses and computer science. This knowledge application forces students to use creative ways to recall information and demonstrate this knowledge, which in turn boosts long term knowledge retention.

  1. Grades are the Goal

In most traditional classrooms, both students and teachers strive for improving grades in summative assessments. In this race for securing a letter or a number based on an abstract rubric, learning is not prioritized. At Minerva, formative assessment in the form of impromptu quizzes and polls help us engage in meaningful debate and discussions, while also clarifying concepts. Moreover, grading is not final for each assignment but rather the weighted average of competencies exhibited in various assignments. This grading system promotes a “growth mindset” where students see each new test or assignment as an opportunity to learn and apply knowledge rather than compare their scores with fellows.

In short, although exams are traditionally used to measure and encourage learning, they are largely unsuccessful due to the many listed reasons. Basing themselves on the science of learning, educators can utilize  frequent testing, projects/assignments based evaluations and formative learning methods that can better measure true student learning and knowledge transfer.

Eisha is an M23 Minerva University student studying Computer Science and Business

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