Exams: They’re about more than grades

Exams: They’re about more than grades

What if I told you that there is more to exams than striving for a certain grade? Many students, particularly studious HSC candidates approaching their trial exams, would be astonished to hear this. Actually, they probably wouldn’t believe it at all. That’s not hard to understand because of the amount of air time given to talking about grades and marks and passes and fails.

Of course, marks are easy to measure and compare with previous personal bests or to compare with classmates and siblings. You don’t have as much hard data to measure and compare how much more you know about the causes and effects of the Vietnam War since the start of term or how much more confident you feel tackling quadratic equations in word problems since last year. As we know, exam questions are designed to prompt you to show how much you’ve learned over the topic or course.
However, as many disgruntled students say, “What’s the point of exams? I won’t have to do exams once I’m working.” Depending on your career, you may be right, but that doesn’t automatically mean that exams are pointless.

Firstly, we need to think about what assessments are for. Assignments and exams give teachers quantitative (numerical) data to support their qualitative (observational) assessment of a student’s learning. Assessment marks help teachers to give appropriate feedback to guide and extend the student’s learning.

Exams are one half of a holistic assessment program. They are designed to test a student’s subject knowledge and challenge them to move beyond recalling information to applying what they’ve learned to new scenarios. The other 50% is assignments which the student’s prepare at home over several weeks or months and submit. Assignments also test a student’s application of knowledge, but specifically focus on creative problem solving. For example, if a student is tasked with making a poster about Ancient Egypt, they have to research their information and then communicate it through written and visual methods to show what they’ve found out. The poster tests their knowledge, but also challenges them to present their information in a creative, visually appealing, and memorable way. The benefit of this two-pronged assessment program is so that all learning styles and learning needs are catered for when it comes to assessment. This also implies that critical and creative skills are equally necessary for students to learn.
Exams test the breadth of a student’s knowledge and their depth of understanding. A good test for when we know something well is that we can apply those principles to a new situation. To test mathematical knowledge, you could ask questions such as:

  • How many minutes will it take to get to the shops if the shops are 10km away and we are travelling at 60km/h?
  • How many seeds can I plant in our garden bed if I can plant 1 seed in each hole, each hole in 5cm apart, and our garden bed is 1m x 0.5m?
  • How long will it take me to save for a $200 scooter if I earn $10 each week for doing the chores? (In fact, you could use this example as a springboard to expend their financial literacy by asking them to find which store will sells the same scooter for the lowest price including shipping.)

In each of these examples, we have applied textbook knowledge to everyday scenarios in a way that requires creative thinking understand the problem and find the most efficient solution.

Similarly, the time pressure of exams, while nerve-wracking, helps us to develop decision making and evaluative skills under a deadline. These situations arise in every workplace.

  • You load the truck and realise that the strap keeping the pallets in place is frayed. The delivery is on a deadline. Do you replace the strap and call the customer to say you’ll be a few minutes late, or do you determine that the strap is functional and passes all WHS requirements and is safe to use but you will keep an eye on it?
  • Your boss asks you why you made a certain decision so you have to justify your choices and persuade them that your decision was in the best interests of the business.
  • You’re in charge of evaluating your household electricity contract. You need to choose between Company A whose rates are the cheapest but their customer service is average, Company B who is more expensive but gives you discounts to a few of the shops you use regularly, or Company C whose rates are the same as Company B but who promises to offset your energy with a clean energy scheme. What you choose depends on what your values are, which will be different in every household.

Of course, it’s entirely reasonable to say that exams aren’t a reliable form of knowledge testing because students study for a test, accumulate a superficial understanding of the topic, and then forget about it as soon as they walk out of the exam room. Exams, you might say, focus a student’s learning on achieving a certain grade instead of acquiring relevant knowledge and transferable skills.
However, that’s exactly what teaching study skills in class and in tutoring is all about. Some students pick up these skills really quickly but many students don’t see the point of regular revision, or creating a study routine, or indeed, studying at all when they’re rewarded for cramming for a grade the night before the test. This is why we need to address the fundamental misunderstanding that exams are purely for assessment purposes.

Most clients come to Nepean Tutoring to improve their grades and our expert tutors are certainly up to the job. More importantly, though, our focus is holistic. We foster confidence and curiosity in our students which prepares them for real-life problem solving where there isn’t always one right answer. We help students to plan realistic and regular revision into their busy schedules so that they understand and remember what they’re learning, helping them to succeed in school and in life.

Are you searching for success? Look no further than Nepean Tutoring. Contact Us today for a free consultation.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)