Friday, 1 May 2009

Are public exams entering the twenty-first century?

When was the last time that you did any work for a prolonged period of time sitting in silence, using a pen, without access to the Internet or the ability to communicate with colleagues in person, by phone or online? The world of work has moved on and has left the working conditions of the examination hall a long way behind. The British Examination system has become increasingly alienated from the skills of the workplace.

Let us not underestimate the importance of this issue - for the examination system is driving a number of key aspects of curriculum in schools - ultimately there is an element here that we teach what we can examine. Sadly this is the tail wagging the dog.

When I was reading Theology at Cambridge there was a discussion in the faculty as to whether or not students should be allowed to take copies of the bible into examinations. Traditionalists argued that we should all know the texts by heart and be able to quote key passages to support the arguments in our essays; modernists argued that knowing this material was not a virtue, being able to find relevant information under the time pressure of the exam was just as important and the examiners should focus on crediting the higher skills and understanding being assessed.

Twenty years on we are having the same debate. We need to recognise that factual information is of a very low value in a world where we all have immediate ubiquitous access to the Internet through mobile devices. The ability to find and weigh up the importance of relevant information is far more important; as are the abilities to marshal arguments and evaluate issues are higher skills still.

With the exception of special needs pupils [where most of the functionality of the computer is disabled], we do not allow students to use laptops in examinations because of concerns about cheating. These are genuine concerns.

Personally, I have no problem with examinees having access to the knowledge base of the Internet during their examinations, so long as we can ensure that the examinee is exercising the research skills and not just linking to someone online who is doing the exam on his or her behalf.

This scenario is some way off, but the news of a trial project in Norway whereby students can sit their national examinations on their own laptops is an interesting development. The Norwegians are using software to monitor what examinees are doing in examinations to prevent them from cheating or from communicating with other. They have not gone so far as to allow Internet access, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

BBC Report on Norway tests laptop exam scheme


  1. In some ways we're not that far off the scenario seen in the Norwegian pilot study, since the next academic year will see the introduction of PC based controlled tests for a number of subjects. From memory, Classics, Geography, RS, Modern Languages, and History will all be undertaking such testing at Berkhamsted.

    It will be interesting to see what logistical challenges this throws up as well as the pedagogical implications of moving to more online based assessment.

  2. Indeed Sacha - I think unfortunately that the logistical challenges will be the most significant obstacle in the first instance, with pedagogy coming a poor second! It will be really interesting to see how these practical issues are addressed, but also how issues of plagiarism and communication are managed 'live' in exam halls too.