Back to the exam hall

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am

I am old enough to have completed my O-levels, A-levels and degree without ever having had to carry out a project, submit coursework or be subjected to continuous assessment. Everything was judged solely by final written examinations. Thus, at university - regardless of how assiduously, or not, I may have produced essays or attended lectures, and regardless even of exam grades at the end of the first and second years - the grade of my degree hung on my performance in six three-hour exam papers at the end of my third year.

That system was by no means perfect. It may have failed to test investigative or organisational skills that the business world demands. It militated against those who suffered exam nerves. But most of us who went through it probably regard what has happened to education since then as shameful dumbing-down.

Today's tendency towards the modular approach, whereby the course is broken down into a sequence of bite-size chunks, encourages students to cram in short bursts and then forget everything. Meanwhile, project work can be aided and abetted by parents and others, or model answers simply downloaded from the internet.

Moreover, schoolchildren and university students seem to be in perpetual exam mode, never having enough time to relax and indulge in broader social or cultural opportunities. Teachers are overburdened with the task of assessing, and with the associated strain of judging how much help to give, and how to gauge whether work submitted is the student's own.

The internet poses the greatest threat to integrity in education. Plagiarism is rife. Students cut and paste material into their project submissions. Model answers can be found online. Students can even buy tailor-made compositions, where the vendor promises to include a sufficient amount of variation so that the product cannot be traced as pure plagiarism. But the other side is not lying idle. Examiners can subscribe to online anti-plagiarism services, which will check any text against thousands of existing sources to identify any matching chunks.

But therein lies an awkward conundrum. In my student days, if one could have reproduced verbatim the words of a leading sage or a standard text, one would probably have scored high marks -on the presumption that, in the process of memorising and regurgitating it, one must have understood it. Today, any such parroting in project work would risk accusations of cheating.

In some cases it may be so, but in others - especially where a non-native English speaker has to submit a paper in English - copying may simply be used to get around language problems; there should be no presumption that it implies a lack of comprehension. Anyway, why waste time rephrasing a perfectly good argument?

In essence, far too much reliance is being placed, for standard exams, on coursework, projects and dissertations. These submissions may seldom provide an accurate ranking of academic achievement.

The challenge of potential plagiarism and cheating may prove insurmountable. As these problems attract more attention, academic results based on assessment under old-fashioned exam conditions will increasingly shine. If those conditions discriminate against non-English speakers, allowances can be made - in fact they already are - in the sense that poor English is not marked down (except, of course, in a test of English).

Regardless of whether the shift from the traditional exam amounted to a dumbing down of assessment standards, the only sure remedy for the degradation of current assessment methods would be to require students to spend more time in the examination hall.

Tony Latter is a senior research fellow of the HK Institute of Economics and Business Strategy