For most people, the question posed in the title is either blindingly obvious or completely left-field: exams are to test people, duh. However, you are most people so let’s try asking the question again: what are exams for?
I ask for the simple that it’s a question which bothers me every time I encounter an exam. It’s all the more pressing this semester, as some of my students are sitting an exam that I’ve written. It’s a bog-standard, 2-essay-questions-in-2-hours, closed book exam.
This is perhaps a key part of my doubt about exams: they end up being a very standardised piece of assessment, relatively unvarying in format and purpose (i.e. getting students to pull together their learning into relatively concise, quick-to-mark answers). One might argue (as people have argued to me, usually when I’m their external examiner) that this predictability of form allows students to refine their technique and maximise their performance. In brief, their attraction lies as much in their ease of administering as in their pedagogic value.
What particularly troubles me is that exams have very limited real-world utility: when do you ever find yourself stuck in a room with no access to other materials and get told to produce a reflective analysis on a topic that you previously only knew roughly which aspects to prepare beforehand? Given that we spend as much time as we do asking students to become good managers of information and efficient and effective researchers, why then do we provide them with an assessment form that doesn’t let them demonstrate this?
Obviously, there is a baby/bathwater issue here. If we have an efficient way of assessing (that also properly captures student ability), then we should use it: none of us has unlimited time. As I’ve discussed before, you can have open book exams, or seen exams (where the student is told what the questions will be some time in advance), or (I suppose) group exams. These would certainly add something to the mix and encourage some additional skills and abilities.
I do recognise that this is also partly a matter of taste: as a student, I prefered writing essays to exams, even if my performance was as good in the latter. But still we need to come back to the original question, albeit in a different way: what do we want to assess and what’s the best way to do that?