Why I don’t give exams

I taught high school students for a decade and a half before my current university career. I obtained my education degree in the early 1990s, at the height of the interest in “alternative assessment.” The phrase “alternative assessment” was replaced eventually by “authentic assessment” and finally the term became simply “assessment.” The change in terminology reflected a change in understanding: alternatives to traditional paper-and-pencil testing should not be considered “alternatives” but as central methods of assessing students. Those methods should be “authentic” in that they reflect actual real-world (meaning, outside of school) tasks, and should require demonstration or performance of student skills. As these ideas became the norm among secondary school teachers, the adjectives “alternative” and “authentic” fell away.

Authentic
From University of Tasmania, “Authentic Assessment,” http://www.teaching-learning.utas.edu.au/assessment/authentic-assessment.

And so when I taught Chemistry, I replaced the final paper-and-pen examination that required calculations and recall of memorized facts with a final lab activity. In my grade eleven courses, students were given a list of 20-30 chemicals, and then provided a sample of one of them. They were required to research the physical and chemical properties of the list of chemicals, perform appropriate tests of their own choosing on their sample, and thereby determine its identity. In doing so, they demonstrated their ability to research, experiment, and draw conclusions. My grade twelve students were given a hydrated salt whose identity they had to determine by evaporating away its water content. They, too, were required to generate their own lab process, including calculations.

Yet when I began teaching History students at university, I reverted to final exams. When I found myself at the end of the term grading not only an end-of-term research essay but also three essays from the exam each student wrote, I realized something had to change. I did not need four essays at the end of the year to determine whether students had mastered the skills the course was designed to teach them. Nor was there much value in my writing comments and offering suggestions for improvement on exams that would not be returned and on final essays that most students would choose not to pick up.

So I have stopped giving exams in my History courses.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. David Jaffee, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article last spring provocatively titled “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams”, made the following criticisms of university exams:

“While faculty consistently complain about instrumentalism, our behavior and the entire system encourages and facilitates it…. This dysfunctional system reaches its zenith with the cumulative ‘final’ exam. We even go so far as to commemorate this sacred academic ritual by setting aside a specially designated ‘exam week’ at the end of each term. This collective exercise in sadism encourages students to cram everything that they think they need to ‘know’ (temporarily for the exam) into their brains, deprive themselves of sleep and leisure activities, complete (or more likely finally start) term papers, and memorize mounds of information. While this traditional exercise might prepare students for the inevitable bouts of unpleasantness they will face as working adults, its value as a learning process is dubious.”

Other scholars have critiqued exams as well. Alfie Kohn suggests that exams largely encourage memorization and thereby promote cheating. A meta-analysis of 250 studies of assessment and learning by Black and Wiliam concluded that “intentional use of assessment in the classroom promotes learning” and that effective assessment requires “determining students’ pre-existing beliefs and knowledge, teaching to challenge and extend students’ beliefs and knowledge, and encouraging student metacognition.” [1] Such assessment is consistent with a constructivist approach to education, but not with many summative examination formats.

John Hattie recently published a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses of evaluation in education. He discovered that testing is “only effective if there is feedback from the tests to teachers such that they modify their instruction to attend to the strengths and gaps in student performance.” [2] Again, the final exam does not allow for such feedback and modification.

Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind

Manitoba Education, Citizenship, and Youth (MECY) has promoted the notion that there are 3 kinds of assessment:: for, as, and of learning:

Assessment for learning: instructors gain insight to plan further instruction; students receive helpful feedback.

Assessment as learning: student meta-cognition and personal responsibility.

Assessment of learning: achievement at a point in time.

The latter, assessment of learning, typically has received the greatest emphasis (through, for example, final examinations), but should receive the least, MECY argues. “The ultimate goal of assessment is to help develop independent, life-long learners who regularly monitor and assess their own progress.”

How does one achieve this goal?

Emphasize formative assessment rather than high-stakes summative assessment (no exams!). Doing so encourages self-reflection, which is critical to a constructivist approach to teaching. Avoid a mismatch between curriculum content and assessment practices: emphasize assessment FOR learning over assessment OF learning. Be aware that good assessment incorporates scaffolding and is differentiated. [3]

Traditionally, Jon Mueller observes, “the curriculum drives assessment. ‘The’ body of knowledge is determined first. That knowledge becomes the curriculum that is delivered. Subsequently, the assessments are developed and administered to determine if acquisition of the curriculum occurred.” Instead, proper assessment “drives the curriculum. That is, teachers first determine the tasks that students will perform to demonstrate their mastery, and then a curriculum is developed that will enable students to perform those tasks well, which would include the acquisition of essential knowledge and skills. This has been referred to as planning backwards.” (MECY provides a useful template for such a process.)

Some excellent descriptions of the skills involved in History (at both the secondary and post-secondary levels) are provided by the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness‘s Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts or the American Historical Association‘s Tuning Project.

How does this look in my classes? It’s a process of constant revision… Check out my syllabi, past and present, on this website for a glimpse of where I’ve been. But next year’s classes, as always, will look different.


This post is a summary of a talk I am giving today to my colleagues at the University of Winnipeg.

[1] Cited in Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth (MECY), “Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind” (2006), 5.

[2] John Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Oxford: Routledge, 2009), 178. Hattie’s synthesis determines that the top 10 influences on student achievement are: self-reporting of grades; Piagetian programs (teaching geared to students’ level of cognitive development); formative evaluation (from teacher to student and vice versa); micro-teaching; acceleration; classroom behaviour; comprehensive interventions for learning disabled students; teacher clarity; reciprocal teaching (students use cognitive strategies such as summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting); and feedback.

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