Why we should abolish the university exam

Exams aren’t the only way to turn out graduates ready for the world of work. Flickr/Reality-check

The time has come to abolish university examinations. Just because something has been around a long time there’s no reason to assume it’s outdated. But in the case of exams that assumption would be right.

We’ve all been through it. You sit down in a room for two or three hours and answer questions from memory. Now we’re wedded to the idea that’s how you should test someone’s knowledge.

But research shows that examinations don’t develop questioning, self sufficient learners. So why have universities, by and large, chosen to retain them?

The case for examinations

People deploy a number of arguments in defence of examinations: they represent a gold standard of assessment to combat grade inflation; they guarantee the requirements of professional bodies; they provide a sea wall against the rising tide of plagiarism.

These reasons have varying degrees of merit but none of them, in themselves, provide a complete defence of the examination system.

It’s true that grades have apparently been improving for a few years now. As the content of degrees has remained relatively stable during that time I assume that degrees have not got easier but that it is easier to do well – and maybe the students simply work harder and do better.

But the improvement is really down to offering students alternatives to examinations. When tested in other ways students get better marks. So the “gold standard” argument comes down to a choice to test a student in a way that depresses their capacity to get a high mark. I am not sure why any teacher would want to do that.

Highlighting that exams can ensure a common professional standard has some merit, but what is a university for if it is simply delivering the requirements of a third party?

The case that exams save us from academic malpractice has most merit, albeit as a counsel of despair. And is the problem of plagiarism really as big as people fear?

Most experienced university lecturers would agree that there seems to be more plagiarism around than there used to be. Whether this is because of improved detection via software like Turnitin or more malpractice is hard to tell, probably a bit of both.

A different era

We have to remember that students today face different pressures to those of previous generations. They have to balance study and work in ways that most of us didn’t.

They are entering a mass higher education system designed for an educated citizenship not an elite system for a small number of professionals, managers and intellectuals. Their schooling is different. They have computers.

Gen-Y doesn’t have a mystical relationship with the virtual world but it is probably true that the difference between physical and virtual reality, between face-to-face and mediated communication, is less marked for a 20 year old student than it is for a 50 year old professor.

One symptom of this blurring is different attitudes to the idea of originality. It’s clear that many of our students genuinely don’t know when they are plagiarising because they don’t recognise originality as necessarily privileged.

OK, I know this looks like post-modern ideology but nothing could be further from the truth: what I am saying is based on my experience as a teacher.

Don’t be afraid of changing the culture

Can universities address all this? Can they guarantee standards without grade inflation? Can they encourage good study habits without using examinations as a policeman?

They can and do. Many parts of many universities already assess imaginatively and creatively and the world has not come to a standstill.

Much of our academic culture is driven by an anxiety-based conservatism. Students are not like academics: they work and achieve in different ways. We should celebrate this difference not fear it or try to compensate for it.

Students coming to university give us a great gift of trust: we should repay that trust by trusting and giving the opportunity to develop the knowledge, the skills and the opportunity to excel. Scrapping examinations is just one step towards that.

Should universities abolish exams? Leave your comments below.