On the purpose of exams

Teachers: think of a recent class exam you administered. What purpose did it serve?

In many educational circles, class exams are thought of as assessments that teachers use to measure student learning. It’s an opportunity for the student to demonstrate their abilities. In other cases, exams simply serve as a grade – nothing more, nothing less. Often times, exams mimic standardized exams and help prepare students for what lay ahead at the end of the school year.

A recent comment by a colleague has me wondering what an exam tells me about my students’ mathematical abilities that I shouldn’t already know.

In other words, if I’m throughly assessing my students on a daily basis and attune to their learning, isn’t a class exam merely a formalized way of collecting this data? For the assessment-conscious teacher, isn’t an exam just more needless paperwork?

I beginning to think so. But this doesn’t mean that they are worthless.

Exams are great tools to support retention amongst students. In a low-stakes environment, they challenge students to individually recall information in context that can lead to high levels of reflection. When used in a group setting, like a two-stage exam, these assessments serve as a springboard for collaboration, meaningful conversation, and deep learning.



One thought on “On the purpose of exams”

  1. As you say, it is very rare that a student surprises me on an exam. Occasionally, it is useful to know if the whole class hasn’t gotten a concept, and they all miss the same two questions – we can go back and spend more time on those concepts. But generally by the time the exam comes, I have a very good sense of where the students are. Sadly, I think that exams act mostly to satisfy administration and parents, and to rank students against one another – and this often has the effect of poorer performance because of the stress.

    Your two-stage exam has a lot of potential – the exam is a super-high leverage moment. I wonder about how the partners work for stage two? Maybe there should be a guarantee that you can’t lose points on stage 2? Thanks for sharing this idea. I’ll let you know if I get to try it out.

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