(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
That time of the year when students have to show how much they have learned is just around the corner. They will be spending days and nights “swotting”—in other words, learning off by heart what they do not necessarily understand to show teachers they are doing just fine.
Exams are undoubtedly the most stressful events in students’ lives. Regardless of their age and the stage they are at in their educational journey, they are expected to perform to the highest standards, under conditions that are sometimes neither natural nor conducive to demonstrating real aptitudes
Anything from timed Cloze tests to long-winded essays debating philosophical questions will be scrutinized with the underlying premise that the outcomes are faithful accounts of students’ knowledge and abilities. These will be graded in terms of accuracy (right or wrong), argument (convincing to flimsy) and style (adequate to inadequate), in light of detailed grading rubrics, most often unknown to those proving their worth.
Students will perform after long sleepless nights, to find that all they thought they knew amounts to a rewired mind, all the more obvious when even their name is misspelled. They will sometimes leave the room feeling that they did a wonderful job, to later be informed of their lack of success—in the worst case scenario, materialized in an F on the test page. Others will have a few more sleepless nights, certain that they have not made it, to then be told they have passed, against all odds. Exams are strange experiences.
Exams in an Online Context
But exam time is equally stressful for teachers. We will find ourselves pondering how to design a test that will be difficult enough to challenge the strongest students, while easy enough for the majority to pass with flying colors.
Finding that fine balance is as difficult as guaranteeing that the exercise is bullet proof against cheating in the multiple forms of academic deceit the imagination can engender. To this, we add the difficult task of assessing and grading in complete fairness.
Student achievements reflect their teachers’ success, so much so that class outcomes ultimately weigh upon the evaluation of educators’ professional performance.
Finally, yet importantly, student achievements are their teachers’ success, so much so that class outcomes ultimately weigh upon the evaluation of educators’ professional performance.
Were there not a degree of truth in the picture above, we would not be questioning how different might assessment and examining be in the ongoing context of online education. How different are the present circumstances, and how much more (or less) difficult is it to test and be tested when the classroom is virtual, thus putting existing reliability mechanisms at stake? Teachers can no longer pry over the shoulder to catch somebody consulting minutely scripted notes on a tiny piece of paper. Neither can they be sure that the exam is rigorously being taken by the person they see working in front of them.
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Nothing has changed, really. The cat-and-mouse chase is still on, as are the basic (erroneous) principles that we can measure knowledge through exams and that exams are necessary to make students study.
Revisiting Existing Processes
Rather than an added problem, online learning can do away with archaic systems of questionable value, when students should be developing basic 21st century skills: problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, emotional intelligence, grit, intrinsic motivation, and social and cultural understanding. How will traditional examination practices ever capture the totality of the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies we want youths to acquire?
It is up to educational systems to create learning environments that nurture trust and accountability. These will be physical or digital spaces, where individuals of all ages take ownership of their learning processes. Social skills, engagement, and productivity will speak for students’ knowledge and abilities. There, leaders who are self-accountable, flexible, creative, and compassionate will be bred. We learn by example.
It is up to educational systems to create learning environments that nurture trust and accountability.
How can we trust others (or ourselves) if our educational system is based on doubt and distrust? We can do away with the fear and anguish that comes with examining by putting in place ongoing accountability strategies, shared by teachers and learners in continuous dialogic self-assessment processes.
Online learning, in its complexity, is providing teachers with invaluable opportunities to revisit existing educational and assessment practices. Current digital learning systems can simply support traditional activities, perpetuating 19th-century mind-sets, or take education closer to that ever-connected, dematerialized reality we live in. In this new context, collaboration and knowledge transfer speak higher than the measurable outcomes of conventional exams.
Online or in-class, a new formula may be in order: To know what I know, look at who I am… to see who I am, observe what I do … and assess me on my ability to change tomorrow.
Josélia Neves is a professor in the Translation and Interpreting Institute at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar, as well as associate dean for social engagement and access.