Thursday, June 29, 2006

Mini rant, and uncharacteristc piece of intelligent thought

Ok so I know I should be flattered...but really, why on earth would I ever consider going out with a 34-year-old smoker who has a 7-year-old child and lives 110 miles away? Come on people, I do have standards.

Anyway - mini rant over. I read an article today in the Times Higher daily email, which concerned a lecturer from the University of Wales Newport who got his final year students to set their own papers and then take books into the exam in case they couldn't answer their own questions. His reasoning was that it was more honest than the usual practice of strongly hinting at the content of the questions, and that assessment should be about real knowledge and ability, not memory tests. I find this interesting - my initial response was that it was a terrible idea, but actually I've always thought exams are a mad way of testing how much someone really understands a subject that they've been studying for a year. How can you possibly measure real understanding in a 3-hour paper? Which jobs in the real world require candidates to memorise huge chunks of information, regurgitate it in highly pressurised conditions and then instantly forget it (which is what I always ended up doing) to concentrate on the next topic? Wouldn't it make more sense to assess people on a set of essays that they've spent time preparing and researching? But then this leaves room for plagiarism and other forms of cheating, so surely an open book or previously seen exam (which I know some subjects allow at Warwick) means that students can construct a decent argument without the pressure of remembering all the facts? Isn't allowing students to set the questions as well just one step beyond this?

Ultimately I think that students should not be allowed to set the questions. A lecturer needs to set topics that are sufficiently challenging and that examine a wide enough quantity of the syllabus. I think perhaps open book/previously seen exams are the best idea, and that in this case students should have to answer a broad range of questions rather than being able to get away with only revising a small section of work like I always did. Either way this article has brought back concepts that I used to think about when I was a student - I always knew that I wasn't really learning anything that I'd remember, and 2 years on I've definitely been proved right. I may have developed my research and writing skills, but basically I was able to gain a high 2:1 on relatively little work, very little knowledge and only a basic level of understanding. Something surely isn't right with our assessment system.

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