The Growing Irrelevance of Examinations

by Ashish

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to examinations.

You hate ’em.

If you’re a student, you hate preparing for examinations, and you hate writing them. If you’re the teacher, you hate setting the paper, and you positively loathe correcting them. So if you think about it, one way of defining the education system is to say that it collects money from one group of people and gives it to another and makes both do something they would rather not do.

Which doesn’t add up, you might think, and you’d be right. And yet here we are. All that the education system does is make students write papers. Dozens of them.

And it’s not just the fact that students have to write examinations. It’s that they have to write examinations. This is the sixteenth year of the twenty-first century. We have driverless cars in California. They talk of sending people into space for tourism. Oculus Rift is about to be launched to the public.

And we still have answer any four of the following in detail (15 marks each). Students still draw margins on the right and the left, and underline important words and all that jazz. They are not, you understand, going to be ever again doing anything like this. They will sit in air-conditioned offices, in front of sleek, gleaming computers, and work out, collaboratively, answers to problems.

Collaboratively is a big fancy word that means, in UGC parlance, copying. If, in a modern corporate organization, you don’t copy, you are shunned as a lone wolf. Why then do we insist that every student memorize, and write out in detail,  the nine tasks that the FSLRC set out for itself in its draft report? Who exactly does this benefit?

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, original thinking. That the educational system isn’t working, and that examinations in particular just don’t make sense is something that everybody knows, but inertia. There are hajjar things wrong with the way we conduct examinations, but today, I want to focus on one positively fatal flaw.

And that fatal flaw is this: in examinations, teachers frame the questions, and students answer them.

So obvious, so matter of course, so banal is this statement that it takes a little time to realize how horrible a system this is. All we’re doing, when we ask students to do this, is learn the subject well enough to be able to answer whatever question we throw at them. And therefore, when they get out there in, y’know, the real world, they ask for a problem, so that they may solve it.

But in the real world, more often than not, you’re paid to frame the question.

Because in today’s collaborative world, knowing how to solve the problem isn’t the challenge. Identifying a set of problems, and prioritizing them, for that moment, in that organization – that’s what makes your bank account go kerrchinnnggg on the first of every month.

And until we help students get the ability to do that, in situations that approximate what their eventual jobs will look like, examinations will continue to be little more than what they are today: a process that nobody wants to, but everybody must, go through.

So what can change? Well, here’s something I tried out in a course I taught this past semester. My final take home assignment was something like this: “Set the final question paper for this subject. Ask any five questions that you think are appropriate, and in each case, explain why you chose that particular question. Also explain why you left out the topics you did”.

Students were free, in this case, to speak to each other, to me, or to whomsoever they wished to while researching this assignment. They could look up stuff online, consult textbooks, do pretty much whatever they wanted. The idea was to make each of them think about what was important enough to be asked, and what could safely be excluded, and why. In other words, learn how to frame probing, comprehensive questions.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that  this is a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is (to me, at any rate) a step removed from the path conventional examinations take. And the farther we move away from answer-any-four-in-detail world, the better the education system will be for it.

That’s a journey of more than a thousand steps, and a single blog post isn’t the place to detail every one of them. But this post was, for me, a place to state what everybody knows to be true: exams are pointless, and they need to change radically.

How exactly this might be done is a story that I’ll attempt to flesh out in coming days.

But first, this is the third installment in a five part series about what’s up with education these days. Part one and part two are here, and in the next post, I’ll try and tackle part four: pedagogy.