6 min
LinkedIn logoPinterest logo
Playful Share icon

This is the problem with exams

Some years ago, a school principal contacted me. She said she has to make some recommendations to the CBSE. So, she asked me: If there was one change that you could make in the school system, what would it be?

I thought for a few minutes and said that I would change the questions in our exams. Because when you change the questions in the exams, the teaching and learning changes on its own. Questions make up our tests and exams in schools. Many children, teachers and parents take these exams very seriously. In fact, in grades 9 and 10, the primary goal of most teachers is to 'prepare' children for these exams.

What if we change the questions in these exams? No questions on reproducing definitions. No questions that children have seen before. Only those questions that children have not seen before and make children think would be included.

This change can push children to learn deeper and push teachers to teach better.

Exams are important. How can we use this to our advantage?

Exams are probably the most important event in a student’s life. They happen almost every month, either in the form of a unit test, a half-yearly exam or a final year exam. Students prepare for exams so that they can score a few extra marks. Some‘ study’ every day and some burn the midnight oil the day before the exam.  

But, the exam system is rigged.

The answers to most of the questions asked in the schools exams are available in the book or in the teaching material.  So, what do students have to do to do well in the exam? Merely memorise the entire book and score a 90%. The children who score 80% or less are the ones who do not memorise well!

This is exactly what I used to do in school for many years. Only later, I realised that my understanding was hollow and I was completely delusional. Millions of children are currently living in the delusion of learning.

The problem with our exams

Teachers want children to score well in the exam. And, who designs the exams? Teachers. Do you see a conflict of interest?

Why would teachers teach children to think or apply their understanding? Why would teachers or the examiner ask unfamiliar questions? Teachers and the school system, in general, are comfortable in helping children score well with the help of this examination system. That is why, teachers use exam-like questions while teaching, living no room for thinking or discomfort for children.

Just to exacerbate the problem, the teachers ‘prepare’ children for the exams. How do they prepare? By making children answer questions that are similar to ones that will come in the exam.

The schools, the teachers, the students and the parents - all live in a delusion bubble that bursts sooner or later.

Exams are a problem. But, how can we turn exams to our advantage?

Now that we have established that exams are a problem, it is time to ask ourselves: Should exams continue to be an evil? Or, can we use exams constructively?

Just like exams can be an evil, they can also improve the school system if we make one small change.

But, before I discuss that: here is a thought experiment. What if we changed the questions in the school exams?

What if we changed ‘Does the pressure increase with altitude?’ to ‘How would an empty bottle brought back from space look?’ and ‘Does friction always oppose motion?’ to ‘What pushes us forward when we walk?’

As soon you change questions to unfamiliar and thought-provoking questions, you will immediately put students and teachers in a spot. The students will be left with no option but to think and the teachers will be left with no option to focus on the understanding of the concepts. The teachers may have to review their own concepts too.

With time, this could make both the teachers and students better.

Schools need to develop the courage to change the questions in their exams

Changing the questions in the school exam is an uncomfortable change. The students may start getting low scores and it can lead to a lot of complaints from the parents. But, schools should do it because it is the right thing to do. The schools do not even need to make drastic changes to their exam system. The change can happen in a slow manner or even in a small manner.

Here are a few ideas:

-      Increase the weightage of good questions in the exams. Don’t wait for CBSE or ICSE to compel you to do it. Do it on your own.

-      Change the questions in the formative assessments, like weekly tests and unit tests.There is no need to change the questions in more high-stake exams, like half-yearly and end of the year exams.

-      Give two exams to children on one topic. If they score low in one, they can always improve by the second exam.

These changes would mitigate any risk of changing the questions in the school exams.

The easiest way to make a BIG change in the school

Let us improve the questions in the school assessments.

At Open Door, we have been running this experiment over the last 6-7 years. Our program - Thinking Assessments - has helped many CBSE and ICSE schools in making thought-provoking questions a part of school assessments. And this has forced children and teachers to think more critically. Slowly, thinking has become a habit with the power of these Science and Math assessments. Listen to the Principal of Bombay Scottish School speak about the effect of Mastery Assessments at her school:

That's why we feel that if there is only change schools can make, they should change the questions in the school exams. This is the easiest change to make. It requires no hardware, no construction and has significant improvement in both students and teachers.

Any one listening?

(Picture credits: La Montessori Schools)


Aneesh Bangia

Aneesh Bangia is the co-founder of Open Door. He writes about the past, present and future of education.

LinkedIn logoTwitter logo