Exams have passed the test of time, post-secondary educators believe

University and college instructors are considering how weighty their assessments should be at this point in the pandemic, but traditional exams remain a hallmark of the post-secondary experience, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

The imposition of COVID-19 public-health restrictions in March 2020 and the accompanying uncertainty related to the virus led to Manitoba schools of all sorts suspending high-stakes tests indefinitely.

The shakeup has brought about a new emphasis on student well-being and, as a result, at least two Winnipeg school divisions have asked their teachers to stop assigning finals worth more than 10 per cent of a course grade.

The University of Manitoba was not involved in the development of the updated evaluation approaches, according to the school’s vice-provost of teaching and learning.

“At this time, no changes have been made to our teaching practices in response to these new policies,” Mark Torchia, executive director of the Centre for Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Manitoba’s largest post-secondary institute, said in a statement.

While many welcome a shift away from anxiety-inducing evaluations and note not all Grade 12 graduates will have to take an exam later on in life, traditionalists claim teenagers need to experience them to hone transferable study and stress-management strategies.

Compromise is key for Martha Koch, an associate professor who studies educational assessment and trains teacher candidates at the U of M.

“There are some really good reasons for continuing to have exams, but not having the stakes so high that students never get to post-secondary,” Koch said, noting many careers require professional and licensing exams.

“We need to support them in being able to manage their time, manage their stress, study properly and understand the kind of questions they’re going to see (on an exam).”

There is an emerging movement to reduce the emphasis on exams in the post-secondary sector and focus on “formative” assessments rather than “summative” ones, Koch noted.

She’s in favour of assigning a wide range of evaluations, including exams, because highly stressful environments can influence outcomes, and a variety of samples gives markers better evidence to assess knowledge, she said.

Red River College Polytechnic has been increasingly focused on leveraging internships and simulated workplace environments — outside of programs such as nursing and apprenticeships, in which candidates participate in significant preparation before undertaking high-stakes tests required for certification.

The college’s vice-president-academic said there’s been a shift over time to encourage instructors to use exams sparingly and focus on project-based and hands-on assignments to ensure graduates are ready to meet real workplace demands.

“When you walk into an employer and they ask you to produce a briefing note in the next half an hour, you’ve got to be able to do that and so, I would say our assessments, if they’re not exams, are no less rigorous and no less stressful and no less authentic than an exam might be,” Christine Watson said.

Instructors are, ultimately, in charge of how they evaluate their students based on academic freedom and autonomy.

That’s the case at Université de Saint-Boniface, where a senior administrator said most instructors on his campus have resumed finals, given how useful of a tool they are to challenge students to review and master content, summarize ideas independently and meet a deadline under pressure.

“It’s not like we’re wedded to the past and we are simply going to reproduce what we did before, but I think final exams are something which will always be a regular evaluation tool,” said Peter Dorrington, vice-president academics and research at at the francophone university.

At the same time, Dorrington said exams need not be “overly daunting,” and students should be able to find success if they attend class and actively participate. Exams can build confidence, he added, noting the more of them a student completes, the more familiar and less troublesome they become.

University of Winnipeg biology professor Scott Forbes’ strategies to reduce exam anxiety include telling his class about the times he’s failed exams in the past, providing mock exams with identical formats to real ones, ensuring the first and last questions are always easy and inserting jokes into tests to alleviate tension.

Exams not only help teachers gauge student achievement, but Forbes said they also serve as a metric of a professor’s performance.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko told the Free Press educators of all levels are best placed to decide what evaluations to undertake in their classes, but he noted giving students important tests earlier on in their schooling can alleviate stress later on.

Ewasko, a certified teacher, added he has heard from post-secondary stakeholders — while working both in student services, prior to entering politics and when he was in charge of the advanced education portfolio — about concerns that graduates are unprepared for university and college.


Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press