Examination methods influence learning

Examination is an important part of higher education. The examination methods and questions have a large impact on how and when students study and what they learn. Examination should not only be used as a control that a student is qualified, but also as an educational tool to influence the learning process (Figure 8). If the assessment is mainly for factual knowledge, the students will primarily learn, memorize and recall facts and details.

Figure 8. The learning process is influenced by the type of examination.

Such tests may have a high reliability, i.e. are easy to grade, but the validity might be low. For measuring that the aims and objectives of higher education have been fulfilled, assessments need to include tests of understanding (such as ability to interpret, exemplify, summarize, compare and explain), as well as ability to apply, analyse, evaluate and synthesize; assessment of skills, such as ability to communicate, should also be included. When students know that all this will be examined, they will extend their learning and gain useful and enduring knowledge and skills.

Students should be given the opportunity to learn from the examination, and realize what an answer should have covered. Furthermore, the students' answers are of value for the teacher to reveal what has been difficult for students to understand or to apply, and thus identify modifications needed in the teaching.

Examples of examination methods

Various forms of examination and assessment might be used. Some examples are:

  • Written exams, including short-answer and essay questions

    Short-answer questions are usually easy to judge and grade, but mainly test how students recall specific facts. In subjects involving quantitative manipulations, it is suggested to include numeric tasks for the students to elaborate on, as well as some questions on explaining the meaning of concepts and the results in words. It is also recommended to include essay questions in the written examination; those will give a better assessment of how students have understood a subject and their ability to apply their knowledge and do analysis, comparison, evaluation and synthesis. The grading of the essay questions could also include how students outline and express their answers in writing.

    In order to make students learn from the assessment, one option can be to give them 10 exam questions, for example, and ask them to answer 7 of those during the examination (different students can make different choices). Each student is also asked to deliver answers to the 3 questions omitted, but then as a take-home exam.

  • Open-book exams

    In an open-book exam, students are allowed to use their textbooks and possibly also other materials during the examination session (commonly used in Biometry). This examination form can be helpful to test students' understanding and ability to apply knowledge, as well as to select relevant information. A limitation might be lack of relevant textbooks or that students cannot afford to buy the books.

  • Multiple-choice tests

    In multiple-choice tests, the students select the answer from several alternative answers (usually 4-5) for each question. These types of tests mainly focus on detailed knowledge and are not very effective at measuring and stimulating learning for understanding, analysis, synthesis and application of knowledge. The tests are easy to judge and grade, but to construct good multiple-choice questions with realistic alternatives is difficult and time-consuming. Multiple-choice tests might be found useful for examination in very large groups of students, or as a guiding quiz in continuous assessment. They should be combined, however, with other examination methods.

    Multiple-choice tests could be used early in a course if, for example, the students are asked to read some simple texts to get an overview of the subject area before going into the individual parts. Knowing that there will be a test might motivate them to read, and the teacher can quickly check their answers.

  • Computer-based assessment

    Computer tests can be based on multiple-choice questions, but might also involve more interactive events where students are presented a case or a problem to elaborate on at the screen. An advantage of computer tests is that students get an immediate feedback on their answers; the tests can also be used for continuous self-assessment. Lack of computers in sufficient numbers might limit the use of this examination method.

  • Take-home exams

    In a take-home exam, the tasks or questions can be distributed to students in the morning, and at the end of the following day they deliver a written short report to be judged and commented upon by the teacher(s). Take-home exam can be a good way to test students' understanding and ability to apply knowledge, and to select and synthesize relevant information; the method might best fit MSc students. Reports delivered can be compared to check that they have been produced individually.

  • Oral examination

    Oral examination is useful to test the students' knowledge and understanding of a topic, as well as their ability for application, analysis, integration and synthesis. The direct feedback in oral examination provides opportunities for students to learn from the examination, and for the teacher to realize what problems students are facing in grasping the topic. It is also a good training for students to express themselves orally, without extended time to think about the answer. Such situations will occur in their professional careers.

    Oral examinations can be done in groups and still grade each student individually. Performing an oral examination in a group of 3-4 students (during 1-1.5 hours) can have several advantages; it is less time-consuming than examining all students one by one, and the discussion within the group can be fruitful. It might be wise to have two teachers per group of students in these examinations, especially if many groups are examined in a day. A comprehensive question, problem or case might be used as a starting point.

    When examination is done in groups, it can be recommended that teachers do not direct their questions to a specific student; directing the questions will hamper the discussion and increase anxiety. It is better to tell the students that they must all take an active part in answering and discussing to pass the examination; questions should be directed only if a student is too quiet. An experienced teacher can quite easily grade the students into the categories fail and pass, and usually also pass with distinction; it might be difficult, though, to do a very detailed grading.

  • Report writing and oral or poster presentations of tasks performed

    Parts or all of the assessment of students in a course might consist of reporting of projects, practicals (field and lab), literature studies or problems/cases dealt with during the course. Examining students on their ability to perform tasks and apply knowledge to unfamiliar situations, as well as to write and present the outcomes is important; it will also test their capacity for application, analysis, synthesis etc. Projects are often performed as group work; they test students' ability to co-operate, but some testing also of each student individually might be needed.

Use a variety of assessment methods

So, what examination methods should we choose? The best answer probably is: Use a variety of assessment methods, if possible within each course, but at least within the education programme. Diversifying the assessment is beneficial. That gives students opportunities to display their full knowledge and skills in the area(s) studied; it extends their learning, and it prepares them for their professional careers. Testing students for detailed, factual knowledge alone will not achieve this. Remember that the assessment methods should be related to the aims and objectives of the course and of the education programme.

Because examination has such an impact on student learning, it is essential to do continuous assessment during a course. If examination is only at the end of the course, most students will postpone their studying until the end. This is not good. Knowledge obtained in a short period is usually not well retained; furthermore, it will not be applied during the course! Continuous assessment can be done through the types of examination discussed above, but also by including compulsory activities that require studying throughout the course; for example, assignments, cross-group discussions, case studies and problem-based learning activities, or study questions covering a wide range of the course contents. Such activities are vital to help students check on their understanding and to identify their knowledge gaps. The results from formal continuous assessment should count in the final exam, either fully or with a weight of 25-50%, for example. When parts of the course content are examined continuously, it is important to include some main issues from these parts also in the final examination so that students get the holistic view.

Whatever type of assessment is used, the teacher must give feedback to students on their progress in studies. Students learn from their mistakes and a student who fails in an examination should be given another chance within a reasonable time.

Using a detailed grading system has advantages and disadvantages

The systems for grading examination results vary. Some universities/colleges apply only pass or fail; some use also pass with distinction, whereas others do the grading on a more detailed scale. Having a detailed grading system has advantages, and disadvantages. Students get credits for good results, which might help them to get a job, and also increase their efforts in the studies. However, a detailed grading might make teachers use examination methods and questions that are easy to grade, i.e. written exams with questions on facts and details, which, as discussed earlier, can have a negative impact on student learning and the fulfilment of the objectives of higher education. Detailed grading might also increase competition between students, make them less willing to co-operate with one another, and possibly promote cheating.

Minimize cheating

Cheating can sometimes be a problem in written examinations and other written tasks. To avoid cheating totally is difficult, but the risk for it to happen can be reduced. The most important might be to show trust in students - and to make them feel that you do that! Study counselling is also important; students need to realize that they should learn for life, not for the exam, and if they cheat they will "fool" themselves. They should also be informed about penalties for cheating.

Common practices to minimize cheating are close watching of students during examinations and not letting them bring anything except allowed materials. In addition, students can be seated randomly in the room; one way to do this is to label the seats to be used in consecutive order, and also write these numbers in a list, but then in random order. When the students enter the room, they write their name on the list, starting from the top line, and go to the seat assigned through the list. This prevents students to choose where to sit, and next to whom, and the teacher decides exactly which seats are to be used. The teacher will know (from the consecutive numbers) which students' have been sitting next to each other, and can check for similarities in answers in case cheating is suspected. If examination occurs simultaneously for students in different courses the students can be mixed, so that those who write the same exam are not seated closely. In a multiple-choice test the order of the questions could be different for students sitting next to each other.

The risk for cheating is smaller when essay type questions are used in written examinations. It might happen, though, that a student claims to have been given too little credit for an answer. If the graded answers are given back to the students, it can be wise to keep a photocopy, at least of the answers from students who failed the examination; it can then be checked that nothing has been added afterwards. Other forms of cheating, such as copying text from other sources, are discussed in [Section 10.6] of this module.

Making good examinations in higher education is a challenging task, and teachers should take the opportunity to exchange ideas on examination. The system with external examiners that is used in many universities may contribute to such exchange, in addition to having an impact on the quality of examination.