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Opinion - Are examinations really necessary at university?

2021-05-21  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Are examinations really necessary at university?
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Prof. Jairos Kangira


In my culture, when a person encounters some difficulties in solving a problem, there is always the question, “But who started this?” Although this question is not answered in many cases, it comes with all the frustration and anguish that people experience when it becomes impossible to solve a problem. Similarly, the angst or anxiety that comes with the process of writing examinations at the end of university semesters has led many students, academics and researchers to question whether examinations are really necessary at this level.  

As for students, they would be forgiven for asking the question “But who started examinations?” when they face problems in preparing for and writing examinations. To partly answer this question, what is indisputably documented is that ancient China was the first country to conduct a nationwide standardised examination called the imperial examination for government officials in 605 AD during the Sui Dynasty. 

The examination system was adopted and developed by England in 1806 for the civil service and education, and the rest is history; now, examinations are ubiquitous globally. In our tertiary institutions, we use examinations to evaluate the acquisition of skills and competencies by students in various courses or programmes that we offer.  

It is true that examinations bring a lot of anxiety among students. This is mainly because examinations have led most students to doubt their self-efficacy, self-efficacy being, according to Albert Bandura, a distinguished Canadian-American psychologist, “the belief in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” In other words, when students do not believe that they have the ability to pass examinations in this case, we say that their self-efficacy is low.

 Literature shows that academics and researchers have attributed the rampant and various forms of examination malpractices or cheating in examinations to the anguish and psychological stress that build up in students as they try to come to terms with a series of examinations, some students writing more than one examination daily in consecutive days. 

 Seized by fear of failure, students are prone to use malpractices that come their way in order to enhance their chances of passing examinations. In their study titled Examination Malpractice in Nigeria: Causes and Effects on National Development,  Onyibe, Uma and Ibina (2015), explain examination malpractice as “any dishonest or unauthorised action or deed committed by a student on his own or in collaboration with others like fellow students, guardians, parents, examination officials, supervisors, invigilators, security officers and anybody or group of people before, during or after examination in order to obtain undeserved marks or grades.” 

This is a comprehensive explanation that covers most of the aspects related to examination malpractices that we encounter in higher education. The three scholars’ findings show that the following are the most prevalent forms of examination malpractices in that country:  collusion among students, impersonification (use of ‘examination mercenaries’), giraffing, inscription, use of technological gadgets, bribery, paper leaks and the intimidation of examination officials by students.

It is disheartening to note that we have experienced some of these forms of examination malpractices in our local institutions. It is not only disgusting but unbelievable that a student can hire someone to write an examination for him or her.  Although it might be hard to understand how parents and guardians can assist students to cheat in examinations, in India for example, it is common practice that parents or relatives or friends provide cheating sheets and other material to students through windows when examinations are in session. In Cambodia, factors that lead to cheating in examinations include the curricula, relationships with teachers/lecturers, parents’ attitudes, peer behaviour and institutional policies (Maenda, 2019). In some cases, the inadequate coverage of modules by some lecturers who are always absent forces desperate students to devise strategies of examination malpractices.

Faced with the abovementioned challenges concerning examinations, some of the most pertinent questions which must be answered are: Are examinations really necessary? Why not scrap examinations, and employ more formative ways of assessing students’ progress and promote them to the next level, depending on monitored progress that is not tied to rigorous written examinations?  In my view, summative examinations with stringent rules should be stopped in the long run as they cause unnecessary anxiety and stress in students. An informed and gradual shift towards a continuous and more practical assessment system should be made in the higher education sector. In other words, formative assessments should form the biggest part of how students’ skills and competencies are evaluated for the award of the various qualifications higher education institutions offer. In addition, it must be compulsory for all students to have work-integrated earning or internships for long periods in their programmes so that they acquire the requisite skills by doing. Internships will assist them to put theory into practice. The Finnish education system is among the best in the world that our education system can benefit from. According to Singh (2017), “With an education system which is vastly different from that of the US, UK and other European countries, Finland has been at the top of the game for decades now. The education system in Finland allows students autonomy and encourages creative play, instead of pitting students in a competitive race for top grades.” The absence of standardised tests or examinations in Finland means that there is neither competition nor comparison of students, schools, universities and regions as we have in Namibia and other parts of Africa and the world. Cuba is another country that does not have summative tests and examinations.

On the whole, and as I see it, summative examinations should be phased out, and more methods of formative assessments should be implemented in our higher education institutions as they engage in the regular transformations and reviews of their curricula.

2021-05-21  Staff Reporter

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