Thursday, 17 December 2015

Think About It: Why Budding Philosophers Shouldn't Sit Exams By Fabian Freyehagen

portrait of a young man
Until recently, philosophy students at the University of Essex – as in most other British universities – took written exams in the summer, after completing coursework during the year. But we have just scrapped all formal exams in philosophy for second- and final-year students.
We realised, in response to feedback from students and employers, that exams were not testing them in the right way. We also realised that we could offer students so much more in the summer term than just revision and testing.
Exams clearly have their merits. But in the advanced study of a subject like philosophy, we need to test students’ ability to think in an original and creative way, rather than simply their power of recall.
Formal exam conditions are poorly suited to testing the skills that are honed by a philosophy degree: problem-solving, independent learning, collaboration, interpretation and presentation; attributes that are prized by employers across a range of careers.
So what will we do instead?
In the summer term, we’re going to offer additional modules so students can delve deeper into the topics they have been studying. After being introduced to a range of ethical theories in the spring, for example, they may find themselves engaging in more detail with one of those theories in the summer, through close reading of a seminal text or investigating a particularly thorny issue, such as end-of-life care.
We’re planning one extra hour per week of contact time in every module and a significant shift towards more student presentations and problem-based group work. We’re still finalising the details of our alternative offering, but we have already learned a number of lessons – and made some key decisions.

We’re pre-empting accusations of ‘dumbing down’

Although Essex is ranked in the top 10 universities in the UK for the quality of our research in philosophy, we recognise that our proposals are likely to face accusations of dumbing down. That means we have to be clear about why such charges would be misplaced. We are challenging the popular link between exams and rigour.
It is often said, for example, that formal exams are useful in preventing cheating. But thanks to advanced plagiarism detection software, students can easily be found out and severely punished for cheating in their coursework (whereas some of them could get away with it in exams by memorising the work of others and regurgitating it).
We also looked at the department’s past results solely on the basis of coursework: there would have been no significant change in degree outcomes. And where there were marginal improvements, these would have slightly benefited female students, who tend to be under-represented in philosophy.

We’re speaking to colleagues

Feedback from the university’s learning and development unit has been essential. Colleagues there confirmed that our proposals are in line with David Nicol’s widely used toolkit for reviewing assessment and feedback and David Boud’s seven propositions for assessment reform from the Assessment Futures project, which the university endorses. We have also made sure that our plans adhere to the Quality Assurance Agency’s subject benchmark statements.

We’re consulting our students

We’ve been presenting our ideas to committees within the school and faculty – most of which include student representatives. We’ve also consulted informally with students in a number of key modules, which we followed up with an open meeting for all philosophy students.
Student responses have been largely positive, and we’ve had the chance to reassure one or two sceptical students. They are going to continue to be part of the process – particularly through our student-staff liaison committees – as we finalise our plans for each module.

We’re bucking the trend

We know that dropping formal written exams goes against the national education trend in schools, which are being told that A-level students need to be tested with more exams.
Students arriving at university are accustomed to learning for tests: they have learned to look for the easy options, the minimum they need to cram into their heads to do well in exams. Teachers tell us that they don’t get the chance to teach philosophy properly any more.
We need to counteract this. We want students to have a deep understanding of philosophy and our assessment methods need to reflect this. Employers tell us that exam performance has little relevance in the workplace – they want us to nurture presentation skills and teamwork.

We’re being flexible

We are giving academics the chance to choose the most appropriate way to assess a particular module - whether it is coursework, in-class assessment or oral exams - and they will explain their choice in their plans for each module.
Tests on unseen questions will remain part of the assessment portfolio, but will be targeted where they are needed – such as in assessing logic skills or the grasp of technical terms.
Both students and staff are looking forward to having more time to work through texts together, rather than rushing through complex material. We value the chance to really develop the independent study skills of our students in a way that will be more appropriate for the discipline and for the jobs they aspire to in the future.

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