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Examinations need to use the skills that students develop, and employers need

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Examinations need to use the skills that students develop, and employers need

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I have a daughter who is 15-years old. Since the age of 11, my biggest recurring worry has been that she'll not achieve her full potential in life because of the exam system. Because she suffers from hay fever, which might drag her down on the day of her key exam. Because she might lose a boyfriend the day before her exams. And because she is living her life digitally - communicating and collaborating with friends and classmates using technology. Getting and giving help to her school friends by text, email, Facebook and instant messenger.

But in the summers of 2012 and 2014, she'll suddenly have to give up that mode of learning. She'll be stuck in an exam hall with a pencil and paper. She'll be told to stop working with others. She'll be told not to refer to any external information. And she'll not be expected to use a computer.

How fair is that? Not just on students, but also on teachers. And also, critically, on employers.

As students, they've worked collaboratively, communicating constantly, and learning through that. And once students become employees, they'll be encouraged to work with others, communicating and collaborating constantly, and be able to research information, use reference sources, and use other people's work to build their own. She'll never be put in a room with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and told to solve a business problem alone.

We know employers need students with skills of communication and collaboration. They are looking for people who can manage projects, keep to deadlines, work well with teams etc.

So it's about time we saw more passionate pleas from people, like the one from Isabel Nisbet (retiring head of the UK's education qualifications quango Ofqual) to change the exam system:

"My generation and the next have a lot to learn from today's pupils about the centrality of technology. They use IT as their natural medium. Yet we are even now accrediting new GCSEs, due to run for several years, still taken largely on paper. This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as the medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which young people learn."

Judging by the comments on this TES article from last week, my views aren't likely to be popular, but I strongly believe the exam system has to change, because today the principal use of a high school exam is to get into university, and the principal use for a degree for many students is to get into the job interview. (I don't mean the courses, or the learning journey - purely the exam process at the end of it). But not many employers spend much interview time looking at exam results - instead they focus on exploring experiences, skills and attitudes to make the right decision.

Last year one of my colleagues was quoted saying "We are witnessing the death of teaching and the dawn of learning". I wonder what the epitaph should be for paper-based exams?

All of this is just my personal opinion, not a reflection of anybody else's. You can add your opinion in the Comments section

  • The principal use of an exam is to test an individual's mastery of a subject. Paper-based exams will eventually go away and be replaced by computer based exams - indeed there already exists many virtual courses / classrooms / schools that do exactly that already. However; I don't foresee the idea of an individual exam to test individual subject mastery going away anytime soon.

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