Spotlight On: Benefits of Exams

20 October 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 20 October 2023.

As students, teachers and parents know, the 2023 exam season is currently in full swing. Exams and tests are often the subject of a great deal of criticism from people involved in education on various grounds - they inflict anxiety on students and teachers; they force lessons to degenerate into trivial test preparation instead of more meaningful learning; they don’t accurately reflect students’ ability; they are no preparation for authentic, real-world tasks and so on.
So, why do we do tests and exams? The answer is because they are an important educational tool, for both academic and social-emotional learning.
Many of us, years after the event, still vividly remember the sweaty palms and sinking feeling on walking into an examination room and can empathise with the Year 12 students currently taking high stakes exams. We know, however, that the correct response in this situation is not to assume that students are too fragile to cope. Basic psychology tells us that helping anxious people avoid things they fear can be profoundly misguided. Facing challenges and doing the best we can despite feeling nervous, helps us grow stronger and more confident. The triumphant expressions on the faces of many of our Year 12 students as they walked out of exams this week is testament to the joy of tackling a challenging task and succeeding. It would be poor training for life if school was never stressful or uncomfortable!
Exams also help keep students motivated and accountable. While in an ideal world, the subject matter in every lesson would be so stimulating that the joy of learning would be sufficient to keep students engaged, we know that, in reality, many important and worthwhile concepts are difficult, unexciting and require effort to learn. Teachers know that when students ask, “Will this be in the exam?”, this is code for “How much effort do I need to put into trying to understand this?”. A future examination can often be a powerful motivator for students to persevere in the face of difficulty.
Of course, we don’t make students do exams just to force them to work hard and be resilient. Exams are actually a powerful assessment tool. While we would not want every single assessment task to be a pen and paper test, examinations are a valid way of informing teachers how much their students have learned. While other tasks, like practicals or research, tend to measure depth of a topic, exams are a good way to test breadth of knowledge. As an Economics teacher, if I want to see how well my class has understood the topic of macroeconomic issues, by far the best way will be for me set them a test. Moreover, if I am to draw accurate conclusions about my students from any assessment, I need to be certain that the task was completed by the student and not by a parent, tutor or ChatGPT.  It is still quite hard to cheat on a traditional pen and paper task.
However, perhaps the best reason to keep tests and exams is not to make students tough or motivated: nor is it really because they give data about student learning, although this is important. Instead, it is because an exam does more than just check a student’s learning, it actually improves it. Research in cognitive science and psychology shows that, when complemented before and after by well-designed tasks, tests and exams can improve both memory of facts and promote deeper understanding. This technique, ‘retrieval practice’, is one of the most effective ways to learn.
How does this work? When you try to remember something - such as my students trying to remember the definition of something like cost-push inflation to answer a test question - you strengthen that memory. The test question is not just an indication of whether my students remember what cost push-inflation is. By making them recall this information the question is actually improving the likelihood that they will remember it again – it has become part of their long-term memory and can be retrieved when needed.
Also, my students are now more likely to remember not just cost-push but other causes of inflation, even though these are not being directly tested. This is because the test question is forcing my students to sift through their memories of other causes of inflation and thus strengthen their memories about all of the related concepts they have learned. It also means that my students will find it easier to retain new information about inflation, since they have grasped the foundational ideas.
So, both preparing for and sitting exams improves resilience and improves learning. For students, a good tip: to become more confident and learn material more effectively for an exam, you should do an exam!