Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why do we give exams?

David Martin teaches high school math in Red Deer, Alberta. He enjoys long walks on the beach and is a Capricorn... he's also a damn good educator. I'm pretty excited to him guest post here on my blog. You can find David's blog here and follow him on Twitter here.

by David Martin

Why do we give exams?

After asking many teachers the top three answers that have been given are:

1. “To assess, and find out actually what the students know”

2. “If we don’t test it, the students won’t want to learn it”

3. “Hold teachers accountable for their teaching”

After many hours of thought, I have decided to post my rebuttal to these three reasons, over the next three blogs:

1) To argue this I would like to start by quoting Einstein “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”. I believe that discrete statistical data, derived from tests, actually devalue the professional judgement of a teacher. Teachers should be able to rely on the personal interaction with their students that they have on a day-to-day basis and not the mark received on an exam.

To further illustrate this, before a student even writes an exam, he/she could explain to the teacher what his/her mark will be on the evaluation. Furthermore, I would even go as far saying that most teachers know what mark the student will receive on the exam as well. If both the teacher and the student know what mark is going to be achieved, why waste valuable class time giving an examination?

Tests are also discouraging to any student achieving a mark that is not sufficient. A student, in this category, will walk into your class KNOWING they will not achieve an adequate mark, and then write the exam. When you hand back the exam, marked, their knowledge will be confirmed with the poor mark. We are beating their confidence down with their own knowledge.

Alfie Kohn, would say:

Most assessment systems are based on an out-dated behaviourist model that assumes nearly everything can -- and should -- be quantified. But the more educators allow themselves to be turned into accountants, the more trivial their teaching becomes and the more their assessments miss.
Some would then argue; give more exams. The more chances a student has to demonstrate their learning, the better the picture the teacher has of what the student knows. Psychologists Martin Maehr and Carol Midgly would say “an overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of excellence”.

It has been shown, many times, that the more a student is told to focus on their marks, the less engaged they become about the learning. Classrooms should have less of an emphasis on achievement and marks, and more emphasis on autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


  1. Last paragraph: I agree, focus on tests makes students less engaged in real learning. Another fine example of how scientific approaches of the last century have caused goal displacement.

  2. Joe,

    I think you nailed this one (as usual) but....

    I want to add one more piece of evidence to your argument. I just bought the book "Visible Learning" by John Hattie. this book was reccommended by Cale Birk in his CP post "research - The educational BS repellent". This very boring looking book is a great meta-analysis of studied on what factors affect achievement in schools.

    Being raised in a sorting and grading system, my first task after opening the package (bought from for a great price and free shipping BTW) was to find the winner. What factor has the greatest influence on achievement?

    Student self-reported grades wins the award. What that means that beyond any other predictor of success in school - the student themselves know how well they will do.

    Why do we waste our time on tests?

    Of course I realized that after perusing the book a bit more, the entire premise of the book is based on student acheivement in a system that, in my opinion, isn't designed for or interested in true success. Success is not good test grades or high graduation rates. Success is giving each student the support and opportunities they need to reach beyond their potential and pursue their passions.

    Is there a provincial exam for that?

  3. I'm all for exams, as long as they consist of authentic problems; and as long as they allow students to access any information they need to solve the problem(s). I've called these 'open exams'.

  4. I've got a learning difficulty and found exams to be a special form of torture. I had a reader/writer for my external school exams but felt my efforts were entirely devalued by the 'this exam was sat under special circumstances' put in bold down the bottom of the certificate.

  5. No argument here about exams. However, I do think we need to be mindful of the interchange of terminology. To some, yes, assessment means tests. However, without question, formative assessment and the subsequent instructional feedback & plan that follows has shown to be the way to most effectively improve student achievement (Black & Wiliam). Also, the art of assessment brings students inside the process - to self-assess - so they can know where they are along their own learning continuum.

    Something has to be counted (agree, certainly not everything). The reality is that students need to know that they are making progress toward the intended learning. Now, what that learning is (21st century skills?) and how they show it (creativity, technology, both?) is a different discussion. If I am to make "progress" I have to know where I am going, where I am now, and the most effective way to get there.
    I struggle with the definitive language of the Alfie Kohn quote. I suppose the disclaimer is that he said "most", however, just because I measure student progress doesn't mean I'm obsessed with measurement...and if I'm measuring for formative purposes then I am using a process that has shown unparalleled success.
    Thanks for the post...really enjoy your blog!

  6. I agree that teachers should give exams. Exams are a necessary part of a student's curriculum. Exams give teachers an evaluation of their student's learning. By most of the students in class performing well on an exam, the teacher will know that the material taught in class was fully understood. By quite a few students not performing well on an exam, the teacher will think that the students either didn't prepare for the exam or the material was not understandable. Evaluations of exams let teachers know what they need to reflect on more the next time that they teach it. If students did not have exams they would not take their education serious.

  7. @Sheena: Then tell me why the kids in my after school robotics club, where no exams are given, take their education in robotics so seriously that they only need me to steer them in the right direction when they are struggling to figure something out, and I have to practically force them out the door when its time to go? I completely disagree with your last sentence - the best and most serious learning happens when a student is engaged in the subject. If we can figure out how to better meet the engagement challenge, any test, exam, or assessment we want or have to do should take care of itself.

  8. @Sheena I'm afraid you place far too much faith in a practice that you assume has to exist. This might be an example of how your own experiences in school and teacher education are clouding your vision for how school and change and improve.

    Do you really think real learning could do not exist without exams? How many exams have you written (as a student and teacher) that you've walked away thinking "boy, good thing I took that exam or wouldn't have learned this material?"

    Dorothy De Zouche may have said it best, “If I can’t give a child a better reason for studying than a grade on a report card, I ought to lock my desk and go home and stay there.”

  9. I can't agree with you more on this issue, TESTS! I am from a country, Japan, where tests have become the main reason for students to study. And I have seen a terrifying outcome: zombified youth with zero intellectual curiosity. My 13 year-old daughter who has just entered secondary school and lost her motivation to learn after taking daily spelling tests for 2 weeks. Education is not supposed to torture young minds but to nurture them.

    I am sharing this on facebook! Thank you!

  10. I am a second year math major student.
    I love math, but i hate exam.
    I don't think grade means anything to me.
    If you don't get a question or theorem on the exam, that doesn't mean you won't understand it in the future.
    In the back of my mind, i have to always worry about getting a certain grade in order to take more advanced courses.
    This has mentally depressed me all the time.


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