Product vs process: toward effective assessment in higher education

Nan Bahr, September 8, 2020

Warning: this blog will be confronting for those who like setting exams or who believe examinations are an unavoidable necessity,

I have come to the belief that examinations are an incredibly flawed approach to assessment. I can use my own experience as evidence. I call it the “cram and dump” approach to gaining a degree. Basically the day after an examination I would be lucky to remember the details that I had crammed into my memory banks even when I was effective enough to get a high performance score on the tests. Sometimes my mind would be erased literally as I walked through the door to exit the exam hall. But I was OK, I had produced the required product for evaluation.

I think my mental scrubbing arose from my approach to surface learning a bunch of facts ready to regurgitate under exam conditions, and then, although I didn’t want to forget, the details we simply erased to make room for the next cramming. The learning was decontextualized, was not made personal, was often complex in detail, and the focus was always on the product … producing the “answer”. In a way, preparation for examinations was almost like studying a list of nonsense words and holding them in memory until dispensed. I used mnemonics, visualisations, songs, and an array of other techniques to allow me to access this information during the exam … but it wasn’t really knowledge. Not really. The focus for me was on the product of the learning, production of correct responses in examination context. Any attention to process of learning was directed to the process for memorisation rather than the application of the knowledge to real world problems. I don’t think I’m unique, but surely this isn’t good enough. I suggest we need to ditch exams entirely and focus on developing a process to build knowledge for our students, not just factual recall.

By reshaping assessment to connect authentically with real world scenarios that require the application of knowledge to a solution, we will be helping students to a professionalization of their learning. By asking them to engage in assessment as they learn as platforms for their learning, aligned to learning outcomes, we will personalise the assessment to promote individual understanding. They will necessarily be engaged fully in the processes for learning in their discipline. This approach has some important collateral benefits … recall is promoted through the linking of knowledge to application and experience … learning outcomes are demonstrated rather than implied … the appeal of contract cheating will fade …our graduates will be confident that they actually know what their degree says they should.

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