Educators have a responsibility to set – and test against – learning outcomes for their various courses. Where learners are studying towards formal qualifications this is even more important as educators need to demonstrate their learners’ abilities to awarding bodies.
Examinations are, of course, a popular form of assessment as they allow educators to review the knowledge of large numbers of people using a standardised tool – an exam paper – and a marking scheme.
Despite their popular use, many people simply hate exams. This is not surprising given that most of us have had a bad experience with exams somewhere along the line.
Amy, for example, managed to revise for the wrong exam once and had a small heart attack when she arrived at her social psychology exam as a first year undergraduate only to find a cognitive psychology paper waiting for her (thankfully, there were a few known topics among the essay questions and it all turned out OK in the end!).
Also, who doesn’t remember having difficulty trying to learn multiple topics in preparation for school exams?
One of the biggest problems with exams is anxiety. Even the most calm and rational people can be turned into gibbering wrecks in the lead-up to a formal test of their abilities. People are predisposed to ‘over-think’ everything and so it’s easy to focus on all the things you think you are going to forget. Inevitably, there will be moments during the exam where a key fact is just outside of the grasp of your memory which only acts to intensify the stress.
Managing stress can be a real challenge and, in some cases, may act as a significant barrier to gaining good grades. At best, a bad experience with exams can knock your confidence. At worst, it can put you off qualifications altogether.
Different assessment options available
One of the major criticisms of exams is that, arguably, they don’t truly reflect the tasks we complete in the real world. There are very few circumstances, for example, where you would write a report or prepare a presentation without searching for – and using – reference material.
Can you imagine a lawyer preparing a case for the prosecution without referring to textbooks and court transcripts?
From an educator’s viewpoint, it can be difficult to test the depth of a learner’s knowledge in specialist subjects using exams. For instance, the complexity of some topics makes it difficult to draft clear and concise questions.
Furthermore, at what point does the learner’s response constitute understanding as opposed to just information (which might be learned on a ‘parrot fashion’ basis)? And just because a learner can list the principles doesn’t mean they know how to interpret the theory properly and translate it for a given practical application.
In fact, many courses (including Masters degree programmes) do not use exams, instead preferring to assess through written coursework (or essays), practical tests, classroom observation and/or presentations.
Assessed group work can also be used. In some ways it might be unsettling that your grade is partially dependent on the performance of the group. However, many of us work in teams in our jobs and so it’s important we learn how to apply our knowledge in these situations.
Top tips for examinations
Although many educators are moving away from exams their use is still popular. On that basis, here are some top tips for how to deal with exams if you find yourself needing to sit one.
Before the examination
- Don’t panic!: anxiety is normal but it’s important to remain as calm and rational as possible as panicking will interfere with your revision and increase the chances of you misreading or misinterpreting exam questions.
- Preparation is key: make sure you know when your exam is, which exam you are going for and where the exam will be held.
- Make a checklist of what you need to take into the exam with you (for example pens and a calculator).
- Revision, revision, revision!: structure your time to ensure you leave enough aside to revise all subjects, and build-in breaks and leisure activities – no-one can work all the time and good quality time off improves your concentration when you do revise.
During the examination
- Read the question: it’s tempting to answer the question you want to answer rather than the one that’s being asked of you.
- Plan your time: think about how much time you want to spend on a section. If you are struggling with it, move on to the next section and come back to it later. You don’t want to run out of time to answer questions you do know at the end of the paper because you spent too much time on a question you are not sure of.
After the examination
- Don’t panic!: it’s normal to come out of an exam and immediately think of a million different things you didn’t write down or that you think you got wrong – there’s nothing you can do about it at this point so worrying is a waste of energy.
- Ensure you know when to expect your results: educators need time to mark exams so don’t expect to receive them immediately. On the other hand, they should be able to provide you with a timeframe for marking. If you don’t hear within their timeframe, follow up with a polite e-mail or phone call.
The bottom line on exams
Exams are here to stay, but not for every course. If you’re taking a course assessed through exams and are anxious then talk to your course tutor. They will not only be able to provide information on where and when exams take place, but should also be able to offer you support around how to structure revision which will help alleviate your anxiety.
If you’re overly affected by exam stress there are ways to avoid this type of assessment completely as many courses focus assessment on coursework and/or practical tests which might be better suited to your learning style.
Ken Livingstone (managing director) and Amy Burrell (training consultant) are with Perpetuity Training Further information about… Perpetuity Training
In 2010, Perpetuity Training won the Security Excellence Awards category for Security Training Initiative of the Year on the basis of it distance learning programme for The Security Institute.
Over the years, the organisation has developed exciting, interactive online training platforms which allow tailor-made specialist training packages to be delivered anywhere in the world.
Perpetuity Training also offers a range of face-to-face short courses, including Level 4 professional awards in Managing Security Surveys and Security Management.
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