Evaluations: Do Exams Evaluate Students Correctly?

· March 5, 2018
Students taking exams.

Before we get into the pros and cons of exams and other options, it’s worth explaining what evaluation is and what it’s for. If you ask someone on the street what a student evaluation is, they’ll probably give you an indirect answer. They may say that it sees if that student has the knowledge they’re supposed to have.

So if they do, then they’ll pass. If they don’t, then they’ll fail. But the truth is that the pattern we just mentioned is far from what’s going on right now. And that means that the objective that school systems have for exams is also far off.

Taking a multiple choice test.

A good evaluation, when it comes to education, focuses on identifying the current knowledge and abilities a student has. Why? To find out what stage of learning they’re in. And what’s the point of that? It’s a very simple thing that a lot of teachers tend to forget. That is, the point is to evaluate whether the teaching system they’re using is working for that student.

This means the student’s grade isn’t just a “quantification” of their knowledge of the course material. It should also give you a sense of whether the overall plan you’re using to help your students retain the knowledge you give them is actually working. 

Therefore, an evaluation can be a powerful tool for your students’ learning processes if you use it right. But seeing evaluations only as a way to pick out or classify students is a very sad outlook that also misses the point.

If your goal with education is to get students to grow, then you can’t keep on using evaluations for something that they’re not good for.

What are the problems with traditional exams?

If you think of evaluations as a tool to guide your students and adjust your teaching methods, you can see the problems with traditional exams. Here are their weaknesses:

  • They only evaluate the student. The only person tested is the student. There’s no evaluation of whether the teacher or the educational environment is doing things right. There are even a lot of teachers who use exams to make everyone fail, or who make the exams impossible to pass.
  • Only the teacher evaluates. The student is at the mercy of one teacher’s standards. There are no other standards except for those of the teacher.
  • Only the results matter. Traditional exams might tell you something about a student’s current level of knowledge, but not about the process. It makes no difference whether they actually have a deep understanding of the concepts or if they just memorized them the night before. The results may end up the same.
  • They only evaluate knowledge. There’s no thought given to the student’s situation or their personal strengths and weaknesses. You can’t direct a student’s learning if you don’t know what their abilities are.
  • It’s only a quantitative evaluation. In the end, traditional exams boil everything down to one grade. And that grade should line up with the amount of course material or skills the student has been able to retain.
  • They foster a spirit of competition instead of cooperation. Picking out the students with the best or worst grades makes for a competitive environment. It’s a competition the system itself has indirectly created. And most of the time what happens is that students focus more on getting good grades than learning the most.
A teacher grading evaluations.

Alternatives to traditional exams

Keeping in mind all the problems that come with a traditional evaluation, it’s time to look for alternatives. There are basically three pillars you should use as the basis for an ideal evaluation. (a) Evaluation of competence, (b) Portfolio Systems, and (c) Using ICT.

Evaluation of competence

The point of every subject is for students to learn a certain set of knowledge, but also for them to learn a certain set of skills. For example, one goal of math might be to get students familiarized with and memorize certain formulas and processes, but what’s even more important is that they understand those things and learn to use them to solve problems.

The evaluation should identify what areas of knowledge the student has mastered and which ones they haven’t. Once you’ve figured that out, you can direct their learning to sharpen the knowledge they already have and help them pick up the knowledge they don’t. The only way for this to work is for the course to be well-planned out with a flexible teaching style that’s as individualized as possible.

Portfolio systems

Evaluations of competence tell you what you need to evaluate, but you still need to know how. Portfolio systems are a way to individually evaluate students and focus on their development. But what is a portfolio system?

Psychologist Bertie Kingore defines portfolios like this: “systematic collections of student work selected to provide information about students’ attitudes and motivation, level of development, and growth over time.” 

That is, the portfolios are just “folders” where the student puts all the work they’ve done in that subject, and the teacher consistently reviews it to see how the student develops. This helps the teachers get a better understanding of each student’s learning and shape their lessons around that. And it’s obviously also helpful when it comes to seeing if the student has developed the knowledge and skills they’re supposed to.

The problem with these portfolios is how complicated it is to go through them because of how much information they contain. We’ll go over one possible solution to that in the next section.

A finger clicking a person on a touch screen.

Using ICT (information and communications technology)

Computers, the internet, and other communication systems (ICT) can be very helpful for improving your evaluations. ICT can help you when it comes to solving that problem of going through the portfolios. Actually, there’s an online program that goes through the information students and teachers put into the different electronic portfolios. Hence, easier evaluations.

Before we wrap up we want to give you something to reflect on. Given all the weaknesses of traditional exams and the existence of good alternatives, why are exams still our default evaluation method?