Is now the perfect time to give exams the shakeup they have been waiting for?

Exploring the validity of exams in the new education landscape

At the moment, every new term seems to present yet another challenge for schools – including the recent last-minute announcement of national school closures from the government due to rising COVId-19 cases. Alongside this announcement, the Prime Minister also informed students that their GCSE and A-Level exams will not be going ahead as planned this summer.

For the second year in a row, exams have been replaced with alternative forms of assessment and moderation. The events of last August proved just how stressful the changes and cancellations can be for schools and students alike. However, if there’s one positive element we can take from this news, it’s that the announcement may finally provide the wake-up call schools and moderators around the country have been waiting for. It has presented the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the current exam system and question whether or not it is truly providing our young people with the appropriate skills for the modern world.

 The most profound criticism of exams in their current format is that the assessments are not properly equipping young people with the skills to thrive personally and professionally. GCSEs and A-Levels favour testing students’ ability to memorise and solve simple problems – an ability that will have limited use once they enter a world characterised by increasing complexity. However, what remains overwhelmingly in their favour is that exams in their current format provide an efficient and fair assessment of students’ abilities across different topics.

“It has presented the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the current exam system and question whether or not it is truly providing our young people with the appropriate skills for the modern world”

What’s really needed is a system of exams that remains efficient, whilst engaging students in challenging modern-day skills such as complex problem solving, management and collaboration. Research I have conducted into gamified learning, using educational games from online maths provider Mangahigh, has demonstrated innovative ways in which exams could provide just that.

Gamified learning works with progress tests 

Progress tests are used throughout the school year to monitor a student’s development and ensure they’re moving in the right trajectory to reach the desired standard by the end of the school year, or by the time it comes to sit their exams. In order for a method of assessment to be used in proficiency exams, it must first be proven to work in progress tests, and a number of Mangahigh’s online maths games did just this. The results were stable and provided a clear indication of progress being made by students throughout their learning journey.

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Despite not directly looking for evidence of learning in my research, it became clear that students’ achievements improved with additional attempts at a certain game. Notably, on the entry-level game Beavers Build It, early attempts demonstrate students were struggling in an environment that requires digital literacy, numeracy and collaboration, however when retrying the game after completing a number of the next stages, they were able to aptly complete the level.

Consider the skills we should be examining 

When opening an exam paper, you could not blame someone for thinking they have stepped back in time. The process and format in which many national and international exams take place has hardly changed since the 1970s and 80s, but the world outside the test has changed profoundly. Exams continue to address a limited subset of the skills students need for the next chapter of their lives, instead, they examine those which are convenient to assess in current test formats.

Gamified learning, however, unlocks a way of assessing certain skills which are important for students to learn from a young age.

“Exams continue to address a limited subset of the skills students need for the next chapter of their lives, instead, they examine those which are convenient to assess in current test formats”

Adapting to the examination environment

Preparing for exams can be daunting for young people and for the majority of students, the process is unnatural. Children are made to develop skills which are required only for the exam period, taking focus away from genuinely enriching their learning, understanding and passion for a subject. However, many students take to the process of challenging themselves through educational games more easily and become engaged in the subject matter due to the familiar and relevant format in which it is presented. Seldom would a student repeat a worksheet when they have made an error, but gamified learning develops a desire to repeat the challenge and succeed, whilst learning in the process. Work is underway to progress the use of games as formal assessments, and the rewards of getting this process right are potentially huge.

The challenges around this year’s exams will remain a topical issue throughout the rest of the school year and no doubt, there will be more twists and turns along the way. Whilst gamified learning may not hold all the answers to replacing the current system just yet, it has proven it can help engage students with learning and developing a well-rounded knowledge base. Whatever the future may hold, it’s certainly time we started thinking about how we can incorporate new types of edtech and learning methods even further into our classrooms.


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