An idea whose time has gone?

What if there are no exams? What will learning look like?   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you have lived through the result seasons of the Class 10 and 12 board exams, you know what a mark obsessive culture is. Should we grade or rank students at all? If there are no exams, where do the marks come from? What if there are no exams? What will learning look like?

Exams and marks evolved as the currency of the educational process. In theory, marks indicate a student’s unbiased performance; but, in practice, it tells very little about the person. At best, it informs how well the student has remembered the content within a time limit. Researches tell a different story.

The grading culture

Three decades ago, Ruth Butler explored three types of feedback: scores alone, comments alone, and scores with comments. It turned out that those who received scores alone either became complacent if they had performed well, or were unmotivated if they did badly. Students who received scores with comments focused more on scores, and not the comments. The third group who received comments alone significantly improved their performance

Of late, neuroscientists have been questioning our understanding of exams and unified grading.

In an article last year, neuroscientist Jared Horvath and educator David Bott said that the practice of marks and grades inflates some aspects of reality. And we all do not see reality in the same way. In a 2012 meta-analysis of around 800 studies by John Hattie, students’ self-assessment emerged as the most likely effective intervention, and not an externally validated score.

Competition is touted as the main reason behind exams and grading. Contrarily, the works of Alfie Kohn in the last three decades have shown that competition in education results in curtailed creativity and reduced performance. While we need to train to collaborate to live in a resource-constrained future, we are doing the opposite through exams and marks. So, what sort of learning the traditional exams are promoting?

Disposable learning

Exams have never created good entrepreneurs, artists, or scientists, but have distracted many from real learning. Stress, cheating, social anxiety, suicides, and other negative consequences confirm such damages. Their engagement with learning is crippled by the focus on tests. The culture of grading obstructs real-world learning and limits student autonomy leading to disposable learning.

While we applause diversity, marks promote monoculture mindset. Manish Jain of Shikshantar Andolan identifies the root of monoculture creation in schooling practices.

Then, why do we depend on traditional exams and marks? Marks are convenient to measure and plot in a bell curve making it comparable for educators and employers. We pretend the process is transparent and fair but the core reason remains convenience, not learning improvement.

We target learning outcomes and average the scores against each criterion. Average is a useful statistical measure, but bad pedagogy. By reducing learning to an average of marks, we ignore the richness of feedback and rigorous iterations required in authentic learning. While marks tangibilise the abstract like learning through exams, we mistake it for assessment.

Assessment alternatives

It is okay to teach for the exam. But the problem is that the exam score becomes the aim of learning. There are ways to assess the students without exams. Students need personalised assessments for improvements, not judgemental marks. So, what are those alternatives?

Apply collaborative methods such as cooperative experiences, peer reviews, and simulations. Adopt portfolios and a variety of writing practices. Use qualitative rubrics with detailed comments, instead of numerical rubrics. Craft Open Methods such as open-net and take-home examinations. Then, the student becomes more transparent, and understands success more flexibly and contextually. The idea is to converse regularly with the students on their progress and construct their own learning.

A movement to de-grade and de-test education is growing worldwide. Teachers Going Gradeless, a Facebook group, and many institutional cultures share the same hopes and ideas. Paul Thomas, a professor in Education at Furman University, has no grades and no tests in his syllabi. Instead, he designs a series of rigorous assignments as learning experiences. There are revisions, challenging feedback, and iterations where the assessment itself is learning. There are many like Professor Thomas in the pedagogical margins, if we allow to experiment.

Here is a situation described in TES, which India can relate to. A low-performing primary school in Australia moved away from tests by eliminating grades and marks. As there was a requirement for government funding, students were still allowed to take standardised exams. But an agreement was made with parents that the scores would never be revealed. In 2019, the school topped in the first quartile on the standardised national exam. The school didn’t discard grades to increase test scores, but this happened as a by-product of placing learning above ranking and scores.

More companies are recruiting for skills, new credentials are evolving, and more emphasis is being laid on the demonstration of what the candidate is... all of which reduce the usefulness of conventional exams.

Exams and marks, as the core of the educational practice, are overrated. They are prescriptive, unfortunate, unviable, and unnecessary for the future world. As the hangover of the Industrial Age, they are rooted in archaic carrots and sticks.

We need alternative evaluation methods. To begin with, if we permit and support our teachers and students to go beyond the traditional tests and experiment with internal assessments, there can be a dawn of alternative forms of evaluations. This is a demanding yet practical proposition. The evolving domain of evaluation science can aid this.

Marks should neither be the driver nor the target of learning. At best, they may be a by-product of learning. As Joe Martin says, no teacher has ever had a former student return to say that an exam conducted by the teacher changed his life.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are personal.

The writer is Education Officer, with University Grants Commission.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 3:18:44 PM |

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