While getting much needed coffee the other day with a friend, we couldn’t help but overhear university students discussing how stressful final exams are. One of the students went so far as to say the exams really are a form of inhumane torture and should be removed, because school is hard enough as it is. The other student not only agreed, but added the observation that exams don’t prove anything really.
I can’t say that as an educator I give exams to students for the sake of giving exams. I have requirements to test my students’ knowledge and ability to grasp what I am teaching. I have requirements around assigning marks based on a set of rules and policies within my institution.
The institution has a set of standards that students must meet in order to receive a degree from the institution, and part of those standards involve passing courses by proving the students have learned the material to an adequate level. Which takes us back to the reason for the exams.
Perhaps in some fields of studies exams could be removed and students could prove mastery of knowledge through lab type application and assume that the theoretical portion of the learning has been completed. In some fields of studies it would be near impossible to show learning without mechanisms such as exams, papers and other assignments. Regardless of the means used to show the learning has taken place, the stress level would still be present because the stress is based on proving you know the material and can display that knowledge.
If there is no need to prove the learning has taken place then perhaps the exams, papers and other such assignments would cease to exist. And educators could step back and allow the students to make and take of the learning what they would. This has been tried before, sadly with outcomes that were not intended. Since the learning no longer had to be proven the students only had to reach their own personal desired level of learning and determine their own competence with the subject. When those same students went forward with their learning, they discovered their learning was not adequate or the focus of their learning was in the wrong area. Some of the students involved in this exercise expressed increased stress at having to take the full responsibility for determining how much they needed to know, how well they needed to understand and apply what they had learned.
Perhaps we should cease to focus so much on the emotional response to things like exams. Perhaps then people wouldn’t feel so stressed. But I doubt it. Because as humans we tend to stress, we’d just find something else to stress us out. Such as someone cutting in line and thus delaying us from getting our much needed coffee.