Exams that you can talk in

By Marcus Wilson 30/08/2011 3


I had a very interesting day yesterday in Auckland, at a NZ Engineering Educator’s forum.  Here, there were representatives from across the tertiary sector looking at ways of improving the way that Engineering is done at universities and polytechnics.

The main speaker was Keith Willey, from the University of Technology, Sydney. He gave some great insights into the way that feedback works and how students can use each other to learn (peer learning). He’s done a lot of work trying to get these strategies to work really well. He showed a few video clips from his classrooms – the most obvious thing that struck me was just how noisy it was. 

Keith talked a bit about a few strategies he’s used – e.g. multiple choice scratch-cards to give the students really instant feedback, but I’ll share the most totally outrageous one – allowing students to talk to each other during tests and exams.

It needs a bit of qualifying – students are allowed to talk to each other (but not write anything down) in the first fifteen minutes of the exam. The point is that the exam then becomes a learning experience in its own right – not just a summative exercise. Students can discuss strategies for tackling particular problems before doing them, and learn from each other. 

That, of course, is the point. The idea of an engineering degree is that a student who completes it has ‘learned’ – has acquired knowledge, skills, abilities etc that are suited for engineering. The role of the teaching staff is to provide them with, and to help them  take, opportunities to learn.  And an exam is one of those opportunities.

Very, very interesting. It would take some nerve to implement it here.


3 Responses to “Exams that you can talk in”

  • I was listening to a podcast that discussed how we are changing our information memory and retrieval in general with the advent of the internet and search engines and such.
    The thrust was that we tend now to recall how/where to look for information, rather than the information itself.
    It made me think about learning and exams from this perspective, what if we gave the students internet access as well as allowing talking? That’s how it would be done in the “real world” surely?
    Possibly that’s a little too radical.

  • It’s not radical at all. Many exams do that to a point, by being open book. All the Master’s exams I set are open book – I say to the students that the only thing they aren’t allowed to bring in is someone else to do the exam for them. The ability to Skype someone and get them to do the work for you is one of the obvious issues with allowing internet use in exams. But I think there are ways around that – a quick interview with the student afterwards will give you a pretty good idea of whether they actually did the work or not. That’s not practical though with very large classes. But does it matter if a student gets external help? If you had a tough problem at work, you’d ask your colleagues for advice, wouldn’t you, rather than trying to tackle it on your own. A lot comes down to setting assessments that get the students practising the skills you want them to have.

  • That’s it exactly, If I have a tough problem to solve I don’t keep it to myself – I research and ask colleagues.

    Trying to set up the exam with and eye to the outcomes that are required is what I had in mind but didn’t spell out.

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