Are Standardised Exams A Waste Of Time?

Posted June 23, 2020, by Elesha

It’s fair to say that many (most?!) students don’t look forward to exams with excited anticipation.

The more common feeling associated with exams is anxiety – there’s a huge amount of pressure to nail an awesome test score.

But for all the stress exams cause, opinion is divided about their effectiveness to measure students’ true ability and workplace potential.

Should standardised tests be the only way to assess students – or can alternative methods provide better career outcomes?

A Quick History Of Exams

Where did exams begin?

According to the Ducere Global Business School report Exams – Effective Or Futile? The Future Of University Assessments modern standardised exams were introduced into schools in England in 1858 by The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (Cambridge Assessment).

Cambridge initiated two examinations: The Junior (16 years of age) and Senior (18 years of age).

At the time, student enrollments were rapidly increasing. The initial idea behind exams was to use them to grade the skyrocketing number of students in a systematic way.

What could be more efficient in processing and grading student outcomes than having hundreds of them sit to take a single standardised exam in a few hours?

Essentially, this means the basis of exams was not rooted in academic excellence but efficient processing.

What Is A Standardised Exam?

Exams can include multiple-choice, true or false and some short answer responses with students recalling information to select or write the answer.

Individual scores are then compared across the board to see how a students result compares to a large sample.

The Problem With Testing Students This Way

The Exams – Effective Or Futile? report points out a slew of research on the effectiveness of standardised testing suggests that this process is flawed.

Here’s a few key reasons why:

Exam stress and the environment can impact results

Standardised exams won’t always provide a true and fair assessment of a student’s knowledge or capability.

This type of exam attempts to put everyone on the same playing field – students have to complete the exam in the same environment during the same time frame.

The problem here is the playing field isn’t actually level. Students sitting to take the test can be dealing with very different personal situations.

For example, ‘test anxiety’ is debilitating for many students. They’re unable to show what they are actually capable of in a high-pressure atmosphere. Stress can impact focus and overall performance resulting in a very different outcome than had they been at ease and focused.

If a student is unwell at the time of the exam, this may negatively impact their results too. Even the lighting, temperature, and other factors in the physical environment can skew performance.

What about soft skills?

Then there’s the issue with many exams being light on, or missing, assessment of key skills needed to do a job well ‘in the real world.’

Soft skills like critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving, and negotiation play a huge role in career success.

Many employers today value them as much as technical knowledge. With increased machine automation across almost every industry, these ‘uniquely human’ skills are fast becoming some of the most valuable to possess.

“Although 99 percent of professors consider critical thinking an “essential” or “very important” goal of a college education, fewer than 20 percent of the exam questions actually tested for this skill.” Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University. (ref Exams – Effective Or Futile?)

LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report revealed employers are increasingly looking for soft skills. 91% of companies a lack of soft skills as an issue and 80% of companies were struggling to find better soft skills in the market.

The one-size-fits-all format doesn’t actually fit all

Cookie-cutter type exams don’t leave much room to accommodate different testing preferences or fully recognise the individual capabilities of each student.

It’s hard to expect every student to be able to do their best in a standardised testing situation when not everyone will be comfortable with the format. For example, some students simply won’t perform at their best when faced with a hundred multiple-choice questions on a time limit.

If Not Exams, Then What?

Many education providers are doing away with the traditional standardised exam status quo and redesigning alternative competency-based assessments.

Standardised exams (status quo): Success is based on the amount of knowledge they can recall in a paper-based or digital test environment.

Real-world, competency based-assessment (alternative): Students are asked to perform meaningful tasks that replicate challenges they’d encounter in the workplace. They’re assessed on their problem-solving ability and knowledge application that would be required of them on the job.

‘Real-world’ practical assessments

In this model, students work on practical assessments that are relevant to their own career path and needs of the industry.

It’s the difference between selecting a response vs performing a task or recalling a process vs applying a process. Instead of exams, students can work and be assessed on business plans, project case studies, etc.

The new method gives students the chance to showcase their skills within a ‘real world’ context.

Students have the chance to reveal a lot more about what they actually know when asked to perform a task than demonstrating recall and recognition on standardised exams.

Students graduate with far more experience and insight of the industry they’re studying and they’re employability factor takes a big jump.

This is a personalised approach to assessing students results and that will actually help them achieve career goals faster. It also brings industry not only skilled workers but the innovative minds it needs to move forward.

From flexible and self-directed online study, to real-world business projects and dynamic industry events, Ducere Global Business School has designed their programs to meet the needs of the modern learner. Their bachelor’s degrees and MBA program blend immersive online learning with an applied assessment approach. Assessments are tailored and integrated into each student’s job, career and personal passions.

Check out online course options from Ducere Global Business School here.


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