Doing away with student exams - Education Matters Magazine
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Doing away with student exams

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Harvard University physicist and educator Eric Mazur speaks with Education Matters editor Kathryn Edwards about how he believes approaches to assessment in education are outdated and that teachers should rethink their approaches in order to better prepare the leaders of tomorrow.

With our testing and assessing models so much embedded in our education system’s culture, what is a good way to start teaching teachers about more creative thinking and teaching students to be more risk averse?

Well, let’s first talk about change in general. I think change is difficult because you don’t know when you start out changing things whether it will get better or worse, and you step into the unknown. So change itself is taking a risk and I think it was Machiavelli, already 500 years ago, who said that nothing is more difficult to undertake than to change the order of things, because the innovator, and that’s actually the word he used, “the innovator” has all those who have done well under the old system for enemies and those who might do better under the new system as lukewarm defenders, and that’s definitely true.

I think in education it’s particularly difficult because we’ve built up an almost cartel-like system where the people doing the education are the ones controlling the education too. You know, the people teaching are the people assessing, so you can always assess in a way as to create the appearance that things are all right because you assess for what has been taught, and then there tends to be not really an honest assessment of what we accomplish with our teaching. So in order to induce change, to get to your question finally, I think there are two things that are in need: first of all, people need to realise that we need to change. Why change if you’re not convinced that you have to change?

Which brings us back to the point I just raised, that people teaching are the people assessing in general in schools and in tertiary education, so they’ll always adjust their assessments to match their teaching – that means everything is all right, so why will we need to change our assessment? I think, though, if you take an honest view at assessments, you find that it often tests only the lower order thinking skills and that a lot of things that can be done with low order thinking skills are slowly going to, might be offloaded onto information technology, smart phones, computers and so on, so that the jobs that are associated with, let’s say, rote memorisation and rote procedural problem-solving, will simply go away. So I’ve been hammering on that message. So I would say that’s the first step that we need to get the word out: if we continue to assess the way we do, we’re going to continue to create people who are good at doing things that can nowadays be done by information technology and therefore those jobs will go away.

I think the second step is that if, or once, we convince people that there’s a need for a change, we need to create an environment which is risk-free so that the people who are doing the change, the courageous leading-edge instructors in institutions are okay if not everything works out fine the first time around. There’s a risk in change and the risk is: you might fail. Right, so if we continue to assess the efficacy of teaching the old way, the indicators might not immediately go up or they might even go down, and we need to create an environment where it’s okay for people to try things out.

Are there small steps teachers can implement to encourage their students to be creative and take risks?

I think so, yeah. I was walking through a university in Melbourne and, as I was taking the escalator up to the floor where I was giving my talk, I passed a couple of classrooms that have glass walls so I could look into the classroom, and it’s the first day of exams so the scene I saw in there, even though I didn’t know it was the first day of exams, I could recognise it right away: desks separated by a metre or two, bare tables with just a piece of paper, an eraser and a pen; no calculators, no computers, nothing; students cut off from each other; students cut off from any source of information. Ask yourself, “Will these students ever in their future career encounter a situation where they’re similarly cut off from any source of information; from each other?” The answer’s no.

I mean, I certainly can’t think of any case in my work, and I’m sure that in your line of work as a writer that you don’t get cut off from information and have to come up with everything on your own, sitting alone at a table with just a pencil and an eraser. So why are we testing our students that way? How do we even imagine that the results we get from that testing will reflect something, a skill or knowledge, that is going to be useful in students’ future careers?

And as you and I know, deep down in our gut, grades that we give our students are really not reflective of their future success. I mean, I can make a long list of people who dropped out of college or high school and who were immensely successful, and I can make an even longer list of students with absolutely spectacular straight-A records, not because they were so fantastic but because they were great test-sitters.

And eventually in life they failed, because they were missing some crucial skill that is very important in real life that was never tested for. So I think that the first thing we need to do is we need to reflect in our assessment processes more the mode of operation in which it is actually going to work. Why cut them off from information? It’s not about storing the Internet in your head; it’s about knowing how to use the information.

Why cut them off from each other if they’ll need to work, they’ll need to solve problems collaboratively anyway? Yes, there has to be an individual accountability. But observing how people work together and training people to work together, teaching people how to work together, I think is an absolutely crucial skill that we really fail to both teach and assess in the standard approach to education.

In your experience and in your research, how are you developing meaningful ranking systems?

Well, first of all, I abandoned the standard creating approach because, I mean, how can you even imagine capturing something as complex as a human being’s performance in a single number, single digit, or single letter: a B, or a C, or an A? I mean, how informative is that really? And also if you look at the correlation, have a look in my own class at the correlation between letter grades and actual abilities, and it’s horrendous. I think it’s more an injustice than anything else. So unfortunately I think that the main purpose of assessment has been ranking people, but we do a very poor job at ranking, as we know. And look, if we were really able to rank people very well, then all of the presidents in the world and all of the CEOs of big companies would be graduates of Harvard University and MIT and Stanford and the top few schools.

And as you and I know, that’s not true at all. In fact, many excessively successful people come from colleges and universities you’ve never of, so the ranking does not translate in actual things that end up mattering in life. So I think that we should basically give up on the ranking but it doesn’t mean we should give up on assessment. No, we should have assessment but we should keep track of people’s performance in dimensions that matters: how well can this person work together with other people; how well can this person, and have sort of a more Rubric based approach where we rank people in a more absolute sense than in a relative sense.

Now, when do you envisage that more and more countries’ education systems would take up this type of assessment?

I’m an optimist, okay, but I’m going to say, “Not in my lifetime.”

I’m an optimist and why am I giving you such a pessimistic view I think is because look at teaching and classrooms around the world in the 21st century and yes you will see technology embedded, people using PowerPoint and this, and projectors and, but you know, the basic standard approach is still not very different from the one that was used in the middle ages.

And was instructors basically, or maybe computer screens, delivering information to students and the education system has probably been more slow to change than any other aspect of society. And in part I think because, as I said, the people teaching are the people assessing. I mean, we don’t have an external accountability or, you know, an easy external accountability. So I think unfortunately change will be very, very slow. There are a couple of countries that I think are ahead and those that are ahead tend to actually do better on international rankings: Finland, Singapore, and so on. I was just at Singapore and I was really impressed by their redesign of learning spaces, by their thinking about innovations in teaching, by their scholarship of teaching and learning. You know, Finland has abolished a lot of testing, well, testing like high stakes testing; that doesn’t mean that there’s no assessment, but there’s just no tests for which students cram and then forget.