Against the Grain: 'Allow students to design their own exams'

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Dr Mike Reddy is a senior lecturer in computing at Newport Business School, University of Wales. He argues that traditional exams are an outdated form of assessment, and that new measures to prevent cheating are a waste of time

Some people say that the solution to the problems of plagiarism and collusion in coursework is to do everything by examination. But exams do not stop cheating. All you have to do is put the words "exam" and "cheat" into YouTube to find loads of videos telling you how to do it, in ways that could never be detected by the so-called James Bond-style devices we've heard about recently. And by bringing these inventions in, you're sending out the message that everyone's guilty until proven innocent. Exams actually encourage cheating, because they often involve mental recall rather than deep understanding. We need to start questioning the pros and cons of examination, and think up some alternatives.

The way in which you assess in an exam is the same way you assess driving skills in a driving test: nobody really drives the way they do in their test. It's an artificial mechanism for assessing you, so it makes you behave in an artificial way. We've got to the stage where many university lecturers teach to an exam: in effect what they're doing is teaching an assessment method, with the content thrown in as a by-product. This practice has led unavoidably to the time-honoured tradition of giving hints about what the exam might cover.

How have things turned out this way? It's because we've changed the style of our exams but kept the same methods of assessment, which are now hundreds of years old. I'd be stunned if there were many lecturers reading this who recently sat down and did an exam – it may be years since they've done one.

One way to update these methods is by using participatory design, or involving the students in their own assessment so they don't have the invisible hoops of a marking scheme to jump through. Why not ask them beforehand to imagine that they were setting the questions, noting the key points they'd like to see covered? That way they'd be given the chance to rehearse and distil down what they wanted to say, and plan it like a performance, and the teacher would be able to locate gaps in their knowledge.

We shouldn't remove exams entirely: we should keep their good points and discard the rest. Exams are good at verifying authorship – that each answer is the work of one student and nobody else, and making people work to a strict time limit. But knowledge retrieval and regurgitation is so easy now that it doesn't stretch people. Finding new methods of assessment might be scary for academics, but they are desperately needed.