It is a common mantra among students at all levels of education that examinations are not true tests of knowledge. While we are not interested in combating this position, we can say with certainty that a large percentage of students who sing this song only use it either as an excuse for their woeful failure in examinations (you may read WHY UNDERGRADUATES FAIL EXAMS: PRE EXAM FACTORS and WHY UNDERGRADUATES FAIL EXAMS: MID-EXAM FACTORS for reasons why students fail to perform to expectations) or for their lackadaisical attitude to education as a whole. As a matter of fact, many students would rather pay their tuition fees, go their ways and come back at the end of the programme for their certificates, if such an opportunity existed but the incontestable fact remains that nothing comes on a platter of gold. Exams are necessary for promotion, assessment of level of understanding of a particular course material or learning content, to test students’ inherent abilities, skills and intelligence and so on and so forth, hence the different types of examination. Exams are apparently not comprehensive enough to test all aspects of an individual’s level of understanding, skills, knowledge and abilities but at least, they go a long way to prove a learner’s intelligence. To therefore submit that exams are not true tests of knowledge is open to disputation.
Admittedly, exams are not without shortcomings and flops. As opponents would always argue, exams often test low levels of knowledge such as memorization but not actual or detailed understanding of the course content. This, however, can only be said to be true to an extent. While short answer tests and multiple choice questions otherwise known as objective questions test the students’ ability to recall actual facts such as names of particular persons, items, places, phenomena, dates, events, etc, essay questions on the other hand help to assess an individual’s ability to brainstorm, synthesize, analyse, argue and deliver his/her points in a comprehensible and convincing manner. This way, students are expected to go beyond sheer memorization of facts.
In the same vein, exams have been faulted, perhaps unjustly, on the basis of manipulations. In other words, exams, particularly the traditional paper-pencil or paper-pen method are admittedly prone to manipulations by desperate students in conjunction with corruptible examiners. But then, the question is, is there any thing humans cannot manipulate? Rather than fault exams for this, we should address the perpetrators of manipulation and examination malpractice.
We must admit, however, that exams are subject to individual mood or opinion of the examiner. A pessimistic or sadistic examiner for example could intentionally raise the standard of the exams higher than required or mark down the students or a particular student if such a student falls into his/her black book. This, notwithstanding, does not often occur with large public examinations but in private teacher-made tests.
More so, students also claim that exams do not reflect how knowledge is used and applied in the real world of practice, work, family, decision making, problem solving, etc. This point is also debatable, in the sense that exams are simulations of the real world problems. At advanced levels of learning, questions are not direct. They require the examiner to engage in deep reasoning and to apply his/her knowledge in solving the problem he is confronted with in exams. No doubt, such intelligence, reasoning skills and ability to make decisions and apply them within the allotted time of exam contributes largely to the preparation of students for the real world.
The debate on the relevance of exams go on and on, but as it is, the reality about it remains that exams are not dispensable. However, they should not be made the only yardstick for assessment and promotion of students. Teachers and lecturers may as well include course work and other forms of presentations to help students who have a phobia for exams to do well in courses. Students should in turn not use the shortcomings of exams as excuses for their own negligence of duty, but rather as a way of improving and preparing them for the world of work.