Higher Education: The case against written exams: Employers say graduates need better communication skills. But university assessment methods neglect this area, argues Geoffrey Alderman

The Government's Charter for Higher Education urges universities and colleges to set up channels of communication with employers to keep them fully informed about approaches to teaching and learning, particularly 'the way students are taught transferable skills such as problem solving and effective communication'.

Traditionalists who are inclined to wince at these words should take time to read through the eight-page Employer Satisfaction Summary recently published by the Quality in Higher Education (QHE) project based at the University of Central England.

QHE asked 127 employers about the importance they attach to the qualities they expect of graduates, and their judgement of the graduates they recruit.

Their responses ought to have important consequences not so much for the subject-matter of what is taught at universities, as for the way in which students are taught and, more fundamentally, the manner in which they are assessed. Methods of assessment are central to the educational mission of a university or college.

When I read Modern History at Oxford, 30 years ago, there was no formal assessment between 'Prelims' at the end of the first term (five written papers) and Finals at the end of the third year (11 three- hour papers in five-and-a-half days, plus a compulsory but perfunctory oral examination of about 10 minutes).

None of the work I did in-between (eight tutorial essays per subject per term) counted towards my degree. Dissertations were optional.

The four essays-in-three- hours examination format to which I was subjected (and which was then widespread within higher education) was a test not so much of intellectual power as of sheer physical endurance. It tested little except memory, exam technique and the ability to grasp a fountain pen for an extended length of time.

When Gladstone took Finals, in 1831, he was obliged to undergo an extensive oral examination, which was central to his final degree classification. It was not only his memory that was put to the test, but also his ability to think fast, to make a case, and to demonstrate his capabilities as an advocate.

The major concern expressed by employers in the QHE report relates to communication skills: 'Employers are concerned about the range of writing abilities and oral presentation skills of graduates. They suggest that undergraduate students should be given more opportunity to make oral presentations and to write in different styles for different audiences.' The report goes on to say that 'employers are doubtful that academic staff . . .

have the experience to be able to develop and assess students in a range of skills and abilities . . . there is a pressing need for a programme of staff development'. Such a programme needs to concentrate heavily on assessment cultures. Students, and employers, need to know not only what is being assessed, but how the assessment operates.

Just as important, the overall assessment strategy adopted should employ as many techniques as possible. Life is not lived under written examination conditions. Save in one respect (and it is, I admit, a crucial one), I see no particular advantage in the unseen written examination.

My caveat relates to the biggest growth industry in the higher education sector, namely plagiarism, against which we must accept that the unseen written examination is still a powerful antidote. Nonetheless, universities owe it to their students to employ as many types of assessment as possible.

Students who are weak in relation to one method of assessment may be very strong in another.

There is, indeed, a great deal of sense in permitting each student at least some choice in the balance of methods by which she or he will be assessed.

But, whatever the balance, the oral presentation should figure somewhere.

The ability to present a case is not only an indication of proficiency in oral communication: it tests the student's ability to deploy a persuasive argument as well as to construct one. Students can be told some time in advance the topic(s) on which they will be asked to speak; or they can be given quite short (say 30 minutes) advance notice. Fellow students can form the audience, for the assessment of an oral presentation can incorporate an element of peer-group evaluation, and even self-assessment, as well as tutor-assessment: it is important that students develop the habit of critically evaluating and assessing their own work.

The video-recorder now provides an excellent means by which oral presentations by students can be assessed, 'double-marked' and sent to an external examiner.

Coursework, projects and dissertations are now commonplace as methods of assessment. Yet, although the written examination has been dislodged from its pedestal, it still looms too large in university assessment strategies.

Graduates (especially in science and technology) need to be able to explain themselves and their ideas clearly to the non-specialist. Some measurement of their ability to do so should contribute towards their degree outcome.

Professor Alderman is Head of the Academic Development & Quality Assurance Unit of Middlesex University.

(Photograph omitted)

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