Will this be in the exam, Miss?

The most important question in many students’ minds, whether at school, college or university: will this be in the exam? We have all had the experience of studiously swotting for an exam, only to find that a short few months later, we have absolutely no memory of what we had learnt.

Whether exams are the best way for students to learn and to gain the skills required in the current job market has long been a bone of contention amongst educationalists – the experts in charge of thinking about our education.

Should exams be scrapped?

This week, Robert Halfon, chairman of the UK’s Education Select Committee has shockingly suggested that “pointless” GCSE exams should be scrapped. Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society has also expressed concerns this week that the current education system in the UK does not prepare young people well enough for the world of work and has called for an independent review of post-16 education in the UK.

The same issue is being debated around the world, from America to Malaysia to Zambia. In Singapore, a country renowned to have the best education system in the world, there has been a major shift away from exam testing.

Is there a better way?

Many educationalists are calling for a change in teaching methods to encourage deep learning or meaningful learning: an approach that provides students with the ability to transfer knowledge, by teaching them to think critically and solve problems. Research shows that this enables students to “develop expertise in a particular discipline or subject area that goes beyond the memorisation of disparate factors or rote procedures; they also understand when, how, and why to apply what they know”. In other words, getting students to ‘think’, not ‘memorise’.

Importantly, studies in the US and Australia have shown that institutions that have adopted deep learning approaches improved students’ exam scores. Deep learning also has a major impact on job-readiness.

Here are some learning behaviours classified into surface learning (i.e. only learning what you think you’ll need for the exam) and deep learning (i.e. taking steps to truly understand what you’re learning) by Kathrin Stranger-Hall:

Surface learning approaches:

I attended my course.
I reviewed my course notes.
I made index cards.
I highlighted the text.

Deep learning approaches:

I wrote my own study questions.
I tried to figure out the answer before looking it up.
I closed my notes and tested how much I remembered.
I broke down complex processes step-by-step.

So, perhaps it’s not the exams, but our approach to learning that needs to change. What do you think? Is it time to scrap GCSEs? If you’ve been cramming for exams, perhaps it’s time to use some of these deeper learning techniques. You’ll certainly be better prepared for the workplace.