COVID: an opportunity to rethink exams


What if the COVID crisis was an opportunity to rethink exams?

20.05.2020 • 6 minutes

Steve Masson

First a health and economic crisis, the covid-19 crisis is now challenging the overall educational system. With most of the world being confined, distance learning has developed, and with the end of the year coming up, exams have now become a global issue faced by the all educational system.

In France, lots of graduate schools have postponed the date for their entry exams, while most of infrastructures’ freshman year admissions have been replaced by application forms.

On the other hand, French Minister of National Education announced that baccalaureate candidates of 2020 will be graded on their ongoing assessment. Elsewhere in Europe, assessment methods’ debate has emerged, as it can be quite challenging to organise distance exams. With that in mind, neuroscience researches have started to provide us relevant insight that invites us to rethink the very notion of examination.

Exams temporality being questioned

An examination is more objective than teachers’ assessment over the year. Here is the main argument we often read from teachers fearing the end of national examination.

Three British researchers dismantle this idea, widespread, within an article of The Conversation: “Teachers’ assessments during compulsory schooling are as reliable and stable as results on standardised exams. We can - and should - trust teachers’ assessments as indicators of student success“ stressed Kaili Rimfeld, Margherita Malanchini and Robert Plomin, supported by scientific studies.

We must recall the financial and psychological costs associated with exams: indeed, besides expenses related to the material organization, the pressure is, as well felt by students whose future is being decided within a few days, as for their parents supporting them, as for teachers preparing them for finals.

Performance anxiety

Steve Masson, Professor at the Faculty of Education Sciences at UQAM (University of Quebec in Montreal) and Director of the Neuroeducation Research Laboratory (LRN), brings up another bias: performance anxiety. In his book, Activate your neurons: To learn and teach better (Odile Jacob editions, March 2020), the researcher does not deny that exam periods are a source of anxiety, but he shows that it can be reduced by a series of tests: not only students (and parents) get used to the exams, but they also realise that exams allow them to acquire knowledge.

Studies he quotes confirme a concept well known for a long time by neuroscience and educational researchers: the “testing effect according to which frequent assessments allow us to truly implement knowledge in our brains and to train our memory to recover this knowledge at the appropriate time. In other words, the complete opposite of cramming: while intense revisions can be effective to pass an exam, they do not contribute to long-term learning.

Changing exams content/structure?

Whether we are talking about a final or about an ongoing assessment, we still need to figure out how to structure assessments. Given the obvious impossibility of organizing them face-to-face, the question of organizing them remotely arises.
Yet if this solution is feasible from a technical perspective, it raises pedagogical interrogations. “Paid remote monitoring solutions may exist, but it seems delusional” puts forward Caroline Tartary, digital education engineer at the University of Poitiers. According to Mrs. Tartary, “we need to rethink assessments so that, even with documents or with access to any kind of documentation, we can assess students. That would mean more practical cases and less knowledge testing in the form of MCQ probably…”

British essayist Paul Graham, who advocates “less hackable” assessments, won’t contradict that argument. He denounces the fact that tests do not really measure a level of knowledge, but only validate correct answers to questions that relate to specific aspects of the program.

Therefore, students may find it advantageous to focus on their notes taken in class, rather than deepening their global understanding by reading a book, as interesting as it is.

"If one of the suggested readings has an interesting digression on a subtle point, you can safely ignore it, because it’s not the kind of thing that could be turned into a test question. Even if I was a diligent student, almost all the work I did in school was aimed at getting a good grade."

Paul Graham

Towards a paradigm shift?

According to Paul Graham, one of the problems with assessment is related to this focus on grades and not on the actual assimilation of knowledge. But this is a complex problem because it is not limited to students, far from it: “you cannot blame students if they choose grades, he warns. Everyone judges them by their grades - graduate programs, employers, scholarships, even their own parents. “

Likewise, Steve Masson calls for a “paradigm shift”: “tests and exams must be seen as an integral part of the learning process, and not only as a tool to verify the success of learning”. However, we should provide quick feedback to students on their assessment, so that they truly benefit from the correction and can learn from their mistakes.

In that way, the coronavirus crisis could be a trigger to change the way of considering examinations. This is at least what the British researchers would hope for in The Conversation: “our results, he wrote, suggest that the replacement of high-stakes exams by teacher-led assessments might be a good thing, not only during the current Covid-19 crisis, but on an ongoing basis.” Leaving behind the culture of grades and the vision of the exam-sanction: beyond the opening or closing of schools and universities, these are the mindsets that need to be changed.


Julie Lemaire, Content Marketing Lead @Wooclap

Julie Lemaire

Content Marketing Lead @Wooclap. As a student of language with a passion for education and a thirst for knowledge, I am currently learning to parlare italiano.


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