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Rethinking Examinations

By G. Balasubramanian

Examinations have, for long been a matter of national debate with regard to their philosophy, practices, procedures and outcomes. In fact, they have remained more as instruments of social validation of the personal practices and achievements of an individual learner, oftentimes marginalizing the facts and circumstances of one’s learning in the context and its eco-system. Consequently, they hardly reflected the most specific competencies and remained an indicator of a trend in the learning profile of the individual. In this process, institutional efforts to superimpose a crowd (cloud) behaviour, which could be either homogeneous or heterogeneous, on the personalized learning curve of a learner has resulted in projections which have not really been reflective of the story behind the learning curve and achievement of the learner. No wonder, commissions and committees have put across arguments and policies for restructuring examinations, recommended, endorsed and encouraged them: yet, there is very limited success in this direction. They have been either directly or indirectly defeated by market forces which have used examinations either as a political tool or as a business tool. Piece-meal approaches to reform the examinations have only pasted patches here and there in its fabric. A holistic approach to review the concept of examinations from its foundations have not been successful for reasons stated above. This can never be done without a transformation in the thought architecture of the politicians, parents, public and those who suffer with hangovers of the past.

The Covid challenges to social dynamics and institutional practices have really posed some serious challenges to the way we have been thinking about learning and assessment. It has demolished some of the most stable structures and demystified the idea that changes cannot happen. Time is ripe to review the idea of examinations to a better purpose than what it meets the eye, in the larger interest of a nation that looks for creativity, progress and performance.

Some basic concerns that exist with the idea of examinations are as under:

1. The concept of examinations has been founded on mistrust

Examined closely, the entire system of examinations is articulated on a system of mistrust of one or the other stakeholders in its framework. With suspicions blooming at every single step associated with examinations, the entire process has become more of policing, thanks to unhealthy competitions structured on its irrelevant outcomes. Compulsion to perform has triggered many unhealthy practices in the system encouraging dishonesty, artificiality and absence of congruence between learning and testing. It is important to look for a design that is built on trust, transparency and has credibility.

2. The objectives of the examinations have largely been to establish linear correlations

The entire design of the examinations right from the foundation level to the highest level appears to be structured to promote linearity in knowledge acquisition, knowledge processing and knowledge delivery. Thus, their very objectives as tool for diagnostics and a tool for re-engineering learning is consistently defeated. The design of questions, the expected answers have all become so tailor-made that it has lost its organic connection either with the content or the pedagogy. In other words, poor correlations seem to be emerging between the former and the latter. “passing” an examination doesn’t need a validation of the understanding of the former two.

3. The examinations have focused in promoting mediocrity

With the linear objectives as given above, one doesn’t need to be an intelligent learner to navigate through the examination, possibly ‘smartness’ appears to be the catchword among the trainers who are caretakers of their examinees. “Rote learning” “Pre-examination practices” and selective approach to anticipated questions help an examinee to score reasonably. Thus, the examinations have largely promoted social mediocrity. Any attempt by individual learners to show a classified behaviour has neither an opportunity nor a welcome objective of the system. Defining a pass in the examination with a meagre 33 or 35 percent has possibly facilitated a social navigation, but from a national quality perspective have sent wrong messages with regard to pursuit of excellence for a better vision about life, skills, growth and development. The debate on the relevance of “Minimum levels of learning” and “Maximum levels of learning” is not encouraged for lack of strength in arguments on either side.

4. Examinations reflect only restricted learning behaviour

The design of examinations and the tools largely tend to test only restricted learning behaviour thereby marginalizing the compass of learning, the quality of learning, the outcomes of learning and several other associated learning inputs, experiences and skills. Hence, they tend to project a distorted view of the learning profile thereby misguiding both the learners and all other stakeholders who celebrate these achievements for one reason or the other. Many of these achievements appear to be born out of a compulsive force driven by the family, society and unwise social branding. Hence there is a case to re-examine the examinations.

Well, with several such arguments and case studies one can make out a case against the examinations. But we are in a situation where we can neither live without them. All that one could anticipate is to move towards the following:

a. Liberating the examinations from the clutches of time and space, encouraging anytime- anywhere learning, thus minimising the cumulative stress built on this.

b. Creating a powerful trust system in education where the teacher in the classroom has a more significant, accountable, reliable, powerful and contributive role to play in the learner’s assessment

c. Extending the design of examinations to more wavelengths of the learning spectrum, wherein the learnability of the learner is seen as the core of his growth profile

d. Incorporating more diagnostic elements by which examinations act as interventional tools for empowering learning rather than a culmination of a learning process

e. Eliminating fear, failure, competition and constraints to look at examination more as a self-learning tool rather than self-defeating game.

f. Creating a general public awareness that any examination is not the real definition of life of an individual but only a status report of some specific cognitive and related skills at the current level.

g. Sending a powerful message that extensive tutorials for performance in examinations will produces products that would meet certain standards but not the yardsticks of quality.