Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 18 August 2020

Yes, school exams are necessary – but effective education is more than just exams

While exams are a necessary part of education, we now have the opportunity to change the system so that learning is not just test and exam driven; a system which moves away from the idea that knowledge is transferred to passive learners by teachers, to a system which requires that learners are co-contributors of knowledge by being actively involved.

Michael le Cordeur

Professor Michael le Cordeur is the head of the Department of Curriculum Studies at the University of Stellenbosch.

With less than a week before schools reopen after being closed for a month due to Covid-19, questions are being asked about examinations. One of these being: are exams required at all? The short answer is, “yes”.

Assessment is not just a way of measuring a learner’s performance, but it ascertains whether learning has taken place and highlights learners’ strong and weak points which serves as a basis for remedial action. Assessment thus forms an integral part of, and is synonymous with, effective tuition with the ultimate purpose of improving education.

For the matriculants, there is little to be said at this point, and much to do. Be assured that matric exams will go ahead. The exam timetable was recently announced: matrics write from 5 November to 15 December; exam papers will be marked in January, and the results will be announced on 23 February. Universities will adapt their academic year and welcome first-year students on 1 March. According to Umalusi, the matric papers have already been set, and will not be scaled down. No one wants an inferior matric certificate.

Assessment is also necessary to decide, in the interest of learners, whether they should be held back or promoted to the next grade. But on what and how must Grade 1 to 11 be assessed this year, given that the curricula have been trimmed and there are only 105 school days left? 

For a while now, educationists across the world have debated a paradigm shift in education. There is consensus that the excessive emphasis on testing does not necessarily lead to quality tuition. Learners in advanced countries such as Finland write far fewer exams than we do.

Finland, which once had an uninspiring bureaucratic education system – similar to what we have in South Africa – is today a world leader thanks to a high standard set for all schools, qualified teachers, the provision of resources and learning materials to schools where they are needed, and a balance between a centralising (top down) and decentralising (bottom up) approach. This ensures that learners are taught by well-prepared teachers and supported by suitable assessment methods in a system where everyone continuously grows and improves.

We now have the opportunity to change the system so that learning is not simply test- and exam-driven; a system which moves away from the idea that knowledge is transferred to passive learners by teachers, to a system which requires that learners are co-contributors of knowledge by being actively involved. Passive learning with its many tests expects little more of learners than that they memorise notes and textbooks without interpreting them. Active learning, on the other hand, encourages learners to think critically about lectures.

Such a system will provide learners with skills required for lifelong learning and make full-fledged citizens of them: citizens who respect women, use alcohol responsibly, take responsibility for their health, and are self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

In short: if we test only for the sake of testing and train learners only for the test, we are not teaching, but coaching. And this is not effective learning. DM

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