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Ever-expanding ‘exam culture’ distancing students from true purpose of education: experts


KARACHI: Pakistan’s plans to introduce an international mathematics and science assessment framework, TIMSS, nationwide could deepen flaws in the way student performance is assessed, according to experts at a conference jointly hosted by the Higher Education Commission, the British Council and Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development (IED).

Speakers at the event noted that TIMSS – an international assessment system that measures student performance in mathematics and science – provided a robust, global comparison of student performance. However, they also urged the country to work on introducing a variety of assessment methods as focusing on standardised tests alone would only reinforce the prevailing culture of ‘teaching to the test’.

Commenting on the value of such summative assessment methods (tests to judge quality of learning at the end of a module), speakers noted that while they provided a good evaluation of a student’s knowledge and skill acquisition, a more rounded assessment of a student’s ability requires a different approach.

Conference Chair Dr Razia Fakir Muhammad, an assistant professor at IED, noted that since knowledge is changing at a rapid pace in today’s world just knowing how to pass an exam is no longer enough. She added that assessment methods that are in tune with the needs of the modern world are needed to judge higher order skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaborative skills and creativity.

“The best assessment systems improve the quality of teaching and learning,” said Dr Razia Muhammad. “They are interactive and dynamic in nature and provide a holistic assessment of a student’s depth of engagement with the subject.”

Using the example of a physics class, Dr Razia Muhammad explained that most students in Pakistan memorise the formulas of speed, distance and time. They then learn how to solve simple statement-based problems that will appear in the exam.

She noted that in other education systems, student learning was assessed through a problem-solving exercise in groups. For example, a student could be asked to compare the cost of rides by ride-hailing services such as Uber or Careem in a variety of instances. For example, when a journey lasts longer due to traffic, when a driver is kept waiting, or at times when a longer route has to be taken due to diversions.

In each instance the cost of the ride increases due to the above variables. Such team exercises help students understand the relationships between variables and also gives them a chance to develop communication skills as they work with their peers, Dr Razia concluded.

The problem with teaching for exam-based assessment is that the student is expected to focus on getting the ‘right answer’ and to accept the teacher’s authority. The consequence of such a system is that students aren’t encouraged to question what they are taught and aren’t challenged to take responsibility for their learning. This has a harmful effect on society as a whole.

“Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education, refers to the need to encourage lifelong learning,” said Dr Sadia Bhutta, Head of Research and Policy Studies at IED. “Modern assessment systems that measure learning on a variety of dimensions inspire students to constantly apply what they are learning, to think critically and to find solutions. Policymakers should keep this point in mind when designing education systems. That’s because the genuine goal of assessment isn’t to distinguish Grade A students from the rest but to encourage constant improvement in teaching and learning.”

The two-day conference was attended by over 300 attendees from the spheres of research, academia, policy making and activism.

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