Exams, tests and grading.

Sarah Boseley

Today, the very fabric of our society depends on schools and our system of education for the imparting of knowledge to its people. This in turn enables the society to function. However, schools and the system of education are entwined together with tests, exams and grading. These tests, exams and grading, have become such a part of the education system and the function of schools, that it is difficult to imagine learning without them. For this site this creates a dilemma. On the one hand, we do not wish to abandon schools as a possible source of learning, but on the other, we wish to maintain that tests, exams and grading are not necessary for learning to take place.

Learning, as explained elsewhere in this site, is something each person must do themselves. It can and does happen anywhere, not just at schools. This site will endeavor to present 12 keys to learning which are derived from the great thinkers in learning and are intended to help ordinary people learn more efficiently and easily. However, if these keys are approached with the idea that they need to be combined within a system that is mired by tests, it is feared their usefulness will be severely hampered and perhaps they will be modified so much that they become unworkable.

Great Thinkers.

It is perhaps pertinent, to point out here, that many of the world's great thinkers had difficulty at school, and were often unable to pass exams necessary to move them to what we would consider to be their true station in life. These are the people who expand the frontier of knowledge and there is a slight possibility exams can prevent such people making their unique contribution. Let us consider the lives of two of these great thinkers, Albert Einstein and Evariste Galois. Einstein was chosen because everybody knows him. Einstein is so iconic that his name has become synonymous with genius. Only Leonardo Da Vinci could have claimed such a thing previously. It is interesting to note, therefore, that Einstein was not very good with some school work and had little patience with exams and tests. This was so much so, that he had to start his working life as a patent clerk and not as a working scientist.

Einstein & Galois.

Einstein of course, became famous after some of his important scientific papers had been published. However, such is not the case with Galois. He never achieved fame or any position of importance nor were many of his peers even aware of his work. Yet he was arguably the greatest mathematician of all time. Galois' story is a cautionary tale for those who think exams are important. He was failed over and over again and was never granted entrance to the kind of college that could have promoted his work. His work was set aside and lost. He was not able to mix with his peers and most of his work was never published while he was alive. Most of what we know of his work, comes from frantic scribblings on the eve of a stupid duel, where he was fatally wounded in his twenty first year of life.

We have many reasons for rejecting tests, not the least of which may be that they are time wasting and even damaging to learning. The damage that testing and exams can do was probably best expressed by Jean Piaget in "To Understand is to Invent" as follows.

Piaget says:

Everything has been said about the value of scholastic examinations, and yet this veritable plague on education at all levels continues to poison --such terminology is not too strong here-- normal relations between the teacher and the student by jeopardizing for both parties the joy in work as well as mutual confidence. The two basic faults of the examination are that generally it does not give objective results, and it becomes, fatally, an end in itself (for even admission examinations are always, first of all, final examinations: the admission examination to high school becomes an end for primary education, etc.) The School examination is not objective, first because it contains an element of chance, but mostly because it depends on memory more than on the constructive capabilities of the student (as if he were condemned never to be able to use his books once he was out of school!). Anyone can confirm how little the grading that results from examination corresponds to the final useful work of people in life. The school examination becomes an end in itself because it dominates the teacher's concerns, instead of fostering his natural role as one who stimulates consciences and minds, and he directs all the work of the students toward the artificial result which is success in the tests, instead of calling attention to the student's real activities and personality."

Testing is so entrenched in our society, our culture, that it may come as a surprise to learn, that it is commonly believed by a large section of the academic community to be completely unnecessary. Everybody knows the arguments in favor of exams, but few seem to be aware of the arguments against them. Whether they are called examinations or testing or grading they seem to serve little purpose that can be demonstrated.

Although there are many other things wrong with tests, the single most damaging thing about tests is the fact that they are graded. It is grading that sets us apart from one another. It is grading that tells us that some of us are better or worse than others and by how much. As motivation goes this means that the higher rated will be motivated to continue, while the lower rated will not, and may in fact, be motivated not to try. The real problem with grades, however, is that it moves children away from learning what they are interested in, in favor of working at that which will get them the best grades.


There are many criticisms of grading but people who are interested to learn more about the harm grades and grading can do are advised to read "Wad-Ja-Get?" by Kirschenbaum Simon and Napier. This book shows how grading encourages cheating, brown nosing or grade grubbing. It shows how teachers are unable to give consistent marks, even when given the same paper only months later, and how the variation with a different teacher grading the same paper can be as much as 25%. This book is fully supported with scientific studies conduced by a wide range of institutions. It also provides thought provoking arguments. Here are some sample excerpts from that book.

"So it came to pass that imperfectly educated teachers, using imperfect measures and imperfect criteria, began to grade students on subject matters that may or may not have had any obvious significance in the life of the student. Success was no longer measured in competitive debate, or the sports arena or on the battle field, or on the job. It was determined by the whim of the teacher in the classroom. At one time in history, it was the teacher who was graded on the basis of the performance of his students. If a teacher's students succeeded in the competition of daily living, he was assured of more pupils and also a flourishing practice. But if his pupils consistently failed, he would not make it as a teacher and would probably have to get another job.

"My major objection to the form of grading used while I was at school is that the grades usually became the sought after goal rather than merely symbolizing what had been learned."

  1. "Grades are unscientific, subjective and seldom relative to educational objectives."

  2. "They are misleading and focus on only one aspect of the child."

  3. "They promote superficial, spurious and insincere scholarship."

  4. "They lead to uncreative teaching."

  5. "They form a barrier between students and teachers."

  6. "Pupils perform for the grade and, as a result, show less initiative and independence."

  7. "Grades tend to divide students into recognizable groups, reflecting inferior and superior qualities, thus often becoming the basis for social relationships."

  8. "They establish a competitive system, with grades as the basis for achievement."

However, it is not just grading that is detrimental to learning but the whole idea of testing. The primary argument for tests is the idea that students need to test themselves or be tested to see if they have understood something. This site rejects this. It is the whole testing structure that confuses children about understanding. It creates in them the idea that if they pass a test getting the answers right that they actually understand something. Before they were exposed to testing they were well aware when they understood something and when they did not. Other arguments for testing are that memory is improved by testing and that teachers need to be informed by tests of the progress of students. This site holds that it is self-evident that teachers would be much better informed about students by going around and interacting with each student. 

The only real arguments for tests (of this sort) are:

  1. That tests are necessary to indicate professional competence in various professions (such as doctors) so that the public has some minimal protection when using their services.

  2. That tests provide feedback to the student about his/her progress in learning. This is about skill, it is certainly true of physical skills but also true about mental skills (manipulation of ideas rather than the understanding of them). This site would suggest, however, that this is because tests often provide a forum for constructive criticism, and that constructive criticism alone would provide far better feedback.

  3. That tests improve the recall of already learned information. There is no getting around it, testing does improve the recall of already learned facts and theories. This is probably the only really good reason to increase tests rather than decrease them. Testing forces students to try and recall data rather than simply look it up. It has been shown in studies that studying by rereading or looking up information is not nearly as effective at improving recall as is trying to recall the information first and then looking up the answer. Obviously self testing or simply trying to recall information before looking it up would serve students better in this regard.

Many educators and psychologists agree that there may be no need for any testing in the actual learning process and that it is probably harmful to learning. What then could be a possible use of testing?

Society currently requires that testing be used for separating students into vaguely similar groups for the benefit of teachers. These teachers are required to present something that can be absorbed by everybody in their class at the same time. If we dispense with teaching everybody in a class the same thing at the same time this need simply evaporates. (These groupings, once you have been placed in them are nearly impossible to escape from. Whether they are intelligence tests or the use of examination tests for streaming, they place students in labeled boxes, where sufficient improvement to provide escape is almost unthinkable. This was clearly shown in "Pygmalion in the Classroom" by Rosenthal and Jacobson.)

Of course, the examination at the end of each year is the test that schools and administrators feel is most indispensable. But is it? Why do we need to have a group of similar age all learning the same things? If we do not then students have the choice to be far ahead in one subject and way behind in another. They can be learning with some much younger than themselves and some much older than themselves.

Examinations are not really needed for the colleges and universities that should have their own entrance qualifications, and which should not include exams. If colleges wish to determine if students are clever enough or creative enough to be worthy of being selected for their college they could set their own entrance exams, and of course the SATs in America already perform just this function. But then why do the colleges need to determine if someone is good enough to go there? Surely wanting to go there should be enough, and if the school isn't big enough then build it bigger as you would a business. In the end the only exams that nearly everybody agrees make any sort of sense are the college and university degrees. But what are degrees used for? In the end it seems, that exams are useful only for businesses looking for new workers and the acceptance that one is qualified in a profession such as a doctor.

But is this so? Surely businesses and professions would also be far better off in devising their own entrance exams, rather than relying on exams from other sources like schools, where there are a great variety of standards. For businesses the learning done in school, for the most part, relates to information that is completely irrelevant to their business or profession. So finally we come to entrance exams which still seem to have some claim to being useful in schools. This site suggests, however, that this is mainly a device for keeping out students that the administrators feel would be disruptive or just not of the right sort. While this can not be justified on moral grounds, it is an understandable human prejudice.

Certainly teachers get little pleasure from tests. In the current system teachers spend a huge portion of their work time marking, correcting and grading papers. This activity, even more than general paper work, is the single greatest time waster for teachers. For many teachers it is as utterly boring and depressing as it is for the students. If teachers could be freed from this activity, they would have maybe 50% more time to spend actually helping students to learn.

Exams or tests are supposed to enable us to become aware of what we do not know or hold incorrectly to be true. Exams or tests do not however, enable us to become aware of such things. What we hold to be true, is only changed by understanding or the accommodation of what we already know to fit with this new knowledge. Exams generally do not uncover what we do not know, but instead, what others think we should know. This implies that there is a body of knowledge that we should know, and that we are somehow inadequate, if we do not know it. This site holds that it is not for others to judge what we should know.

Important. What is important, is what we do know, what we can know, and our desire to know it.

The effects of evaluation on learning.

Although there is still some debate about the scientific effects of evaluation, I think it is now generally accepted in scientific circles that evaluation generally has a negative effect on learning activities.

Scientific studies of the effects of evaluation on learning.

Mark Lepper was the first to suggest that a sense of personal control might be essential motivation and thus to evaluation.    

Teresa Amabile, Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, Mark Lepper and many others, have gradually through many different and diverse experiments, over a  period of about 30 years, pieced together a picture that clearly and scientifically, shows the disastrous effects that evaluation can have on learning. Although nobody seems to have been testing the effects of evaluation specifically on learning, such concepts as creativity studied by Amabile, intrinsic motivation studied by Deci & Ryan, anxiety studies by Moshe Zeidner, cover a wide range of activities including most areas of knowledge that could be called learning.

The effects of evaluation on intrinsic motivation.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have devised a whole new theory of motivation in an effort to initially explain the detrimental effects that that they found extrinsic rewards to have on intrinsic motivation. "Self-Determination Theory" as their theory is named, addresses the interplay of three basic needs determined as "Autonomy", "Relatedness" and "Competence". Although this theory is less concerned with evaluation as being detrimental to learning and more concerned as to how it can be useful for and in consonance with learning it has produced findings that are very significant. The results of their findings and the results of others such as White which they used as a basis for their theory are presented in their book "Intrinsic Motivation and self-Determination in Human Behavior" as follows:

  1. Negative effect.
  2. Actual evaluation generally decreases intrinsic motivation. In other words people are less intrinsically motivated to engage in the same activity after having been evaluated. Also that this was true not just for negative evaluation but also for positive evaluation.

  3. Negative effect.
  4. Evaluation that is more controlling decreases intrinsic motivation.

  5. Negative effect.
  6. Evaluation that is less informational decreases intrinsic motivation.

  7. Positive effect.
  8. Evaluation that is less controlling and provides a considerable amount of choice can increase intrinsic motivation.

  9. Positive effect.
  10. Evaluation that is more informational about the work, whether complementary or critical, can increase intrinsic motivation.

Deci and Ryan explain: "In so far as people's work is being critically evaluated by an external agent, it is possible that people will lose a sense of self-determination and experience a shift in the perceived locus of causality. Evaluations are the basis for determining whether people are complying with external demands, so evaluations themselves are likely to connote external control and therefore to undermine intrinsic motivation."   

The effects of evaluation on creativity.

Teresa Amabile and her colleagues did studies of the effect of evaluation on creativity. They found their results to be consistent for both children and adults and for both verbal creativity and artistic creativity. The results of their findings in both real world observation and experimental studies from her book "Creativity in Context" are presented here as follows:
  1. Expected evaluation generally reduces creative performance. In other words people do less creative work if they expect to be evaluated in any way by somebody else.
  2. Expected evaluation of creative performance reduces further creative performance.
  3. Actual evaluation (positive or negative) that is perceived to be informational tends to increase creativity.
  4. Actual evaluation (positive or negative) that is perceived to be controlling tends to reduce creativity.  
  5. The salience of these two perceived aspects (control & information) provide a continuum along which creativity may increase or reduce or may cancel each other out.
  6. Verbal positive evaluation generally increases creativity, especially if it is informative about specific aspects of the work.  
  7. There is an implied possibility of evaluation in working in the presence of others which has a negative effect on creativity. So that people working alone tend to be more creative than those working in the presence of others.
  8. The negative effect of evaluation on shy subjects was substantially more than on other subjects.
  9. Low skilled subjects perform creatively better after positive evaluation.
  10. High skilled subjects perform creatively worse after positive evaluation.
  11. Creativity tends to be supported by evaluation that is work focused and constructive (even when it is actually negative) if it provides information about performance improvement.
  12. Creativity tends to be supported by evaluation if it conveys positive recognition of competence and valued work.

Basically what Amabile has discovered through research and experiment is that is that while evaluation is generally detrimental to creativity it can be supportive of creativity if it is work focused and constructive. The single exception to this is those who are unskilled and this Amabile theorizes is because the prospect of negative evaluation co-occurs with low levels of skill. Thus creativity tends to be undermined by evaluation that conveys incompetence or threatens self determination.

The effects of evaluation on competence.

Carol Dweck and Andrew Elliot have compiled and edited a compendium on competence called "The Handbook of Competence and Motivation" in which there is an examination of the effects of evaluation on competence by Moshe Zeidner and Gerald Matthews. These studies, although more guarded, also report that test anxiety has some detrimental effects on competence as follows:
  1. Evaluation has various unfavorable competence outcomes including poor cognitive performance, scholastic underachievement, psychological distress and ill health. Consequently evaluation probably prevents large numbers of highly competent people from being admitted to colleges, universities, and other educational training programs. This results in people wasting their lives and the contribution they could have made to society being lost.
  2. Evaluation in the form of test anxiety reduces competence in self evaluation which produces further anxiety and loss of competence in other areas.
  3. A considerable correlation has been found between people who suffer from test anxiety and those who have metal blocks or are technophobes.
  4. Various groups are prone to test anxiety. Such people have entered vicious circles that maintain or intensify test anxiety which ensures competence reduction.
    1. Examinees who are deficient in study and test taking skills. Lack of skill ensures increase in test anxiety.
    2. Examinees who are blocked or who are experiencing retrieval problems. Blockages and memory problems ensure further anxiety.
    3. Examinees who are failure avoiding. Failure avoiders try hard and put in great effort but a single failure produces such anxiety that they tend to fail more and more. Thus it follows that anxiety builds and competency weakens.
    4. Examinees who are unable to take responsibility for their own actions. Such people exhibit an excessive concern for what others think. They begin to avoid test situations and the study that is normal in preparation for them. This ensures that test anxiety will increase. This can lead to other self sabotaging activities such as procrastination and self handicapping in order to lower their own and other people's expectations. These self defeating strategies further increase test anxiety.
    5. Examinees who are perfectionists or over-strivers. Such people expect too much from themselves and thus set competence goals at an unrealistic level ensuring failure, increased anxiety and perceived lack of competence.
  5. Test anxiety interferes with cognitive performance both in the laboratory and in true to life experiences in the schools and colleges.
  6. Negative feedback is especially damaging to people who are already test anxious.  
  7. People who were prone to test anxiety tended to be more self centered and self critical to the point of often emitting personalized self derogatory responses.
  8. A meta study by Hembree showed that test anxiety correlated negatively with a wide array of school achievement including:
    1. Reduction in grades in all the various subjects included in the test.
    2. Problem solving reduction.
    3. Intelligence Quotient (IQ) reduction.
    4. Fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence reduction.
    5. Learning reduction.
    6. Memory reduction.
    7. Skill performance reduction.
  9. Negative self concept, self esteem and pessimism correlate with low academic achievement, and low accomplishment.
  10. Positive self concept, self esteem, and optimism correlate with high academic achievement, and high accomplishment.
  11. Eysenic theorized that high anxiety (including test anxiety) leads to scanning the environment for threats thus causing distraction from focus and attention impairment. One might assume that no anxiety would therefore lead to focus concentration and scanning for opportunity.

Evaluation that increases and enhances.

While evaluation has been generally found to have a harmful effect on intrinsic motivation, creativity and general competence, it is clear from the above findings that evaluation can be, if performed correctly, enhancing. It is in fact enhancing to the very same human qualities (intrinsic motivation, creativity, and competence). The above findings have lead many people concerned with learning including the writer to the following conclusions about how to make evaluation a positive experience that will enhance intrinsic motivation, enhance creativity and enhance competence. Those wishing to enhance or increase these essential human qualities would be advised to consider the following directions in performing evaluation:
  1. Evaluation is most functional in enhancing humans when it is intimate and shows interest and caring. Evaluation is least functional when it is indifferent, unconcerned and uninterested.
  2. Evaluation is at its most enhancing when it is informational or supplies specific feedback about the work being evaluated. Evaluation is at its most sabotaging when it is controlling or is perceived as an attack on the person.
  3. Evaluation is best given in a positive feedback form if the person is anxious or has low confidence in their own competence or creativity. People who are not anxious and who are confident in their own competence and creativity can handle a good deal of negative feedback about their work as they are aware that only negative feedback i.e. criticism can truly enable the changes necessary for improvement.
  4. Positive self (theories) concept, self esteem and general optimism all mediate to prevent the negative effects of evaluation.

Exams, tests and other forms of evaluation in schools, perhaps by their very nature tend to be indifferent and uninterested. It's not enough to inform students they are wrong. Evaluation is only helpful when it supplies feedback about what the student did wrong, where the student went off course, how the student fell into error, and makes some suggestion as to what the student could do in the future. Simply marking something wrong gives very little informational feedback. There are many things about tests at school that are clearly harmful to human learning and one of the worst is how they are designed to control a student's passage through life. Some teachers who are sensitive to student's needs, do provide choice and informational feedback, but exams and tests as a rule provide very little opportunity for this. Worst of all, school tests and exams are constantly eroding student's self (theories) concepts, self esteem and their optimism. This overall reduction in intrinsic motivation, creativity and competence leads to self defeating strategies, which minimize effort and thus perpetuate a vicious cycle. It seems doubtful that exams and tests in schools could ever be framed in a form that could be enhancing to intrinsic motivation, creativity or competence and thus be enhancing to learning.

In summary.

It is the view of this site that exams and tests have only three acceptable functions.
  1. One is to provide a standard where members of a vocation or profession can be accepted as being expert. This is a kind of consumer protection where quacks, impostors and other would be professionals are almost eliminated or minimized for the protection of the public. We are all aware that when we call a plumber or a doctor we do not always get the best advice or the best job, but it is difficult to imagine a world where just anybody could call themselves a doctor or a plumber. The tests that doctors and plumbers have to pass in order to be allowed to so advertise themselves provides the public with at least some minimal protection.

  2. Two is as a means of feedback for the learner as to how he can judge himself against his peers and in terms of creativity or competence. If considering entering a vocation or profession that requires the demonstration of knowledge commensurate with some standard, a learner may wish to find out first, if he has acquired sufficient knowledge. This may be so as to not waste the time of those who check if learners have passed the standard. Learners may also just wish to test themselves first. Learners may simply wish to be more aware of how their own knowledge compares with others and thus wish to test themselves when no standard is required. Learners ultimately need informational feedback so that they can learn from the experience and skills of others. They need this to enable their own improvement and change.

  3. Three is as a way of improving the recall of the specific memories of the information being tested. Although the same memory improvement can be achieved by means of self testing and simply trying to remember specific information before looking it up it must be acknowledged that improving recall is a legitimate reason for having tests.

What exams do and do not do.

  1. Exams or tests do not supply us with the skills needed to apply our knowledge in the outside world.
  2. Exams or tests do not give us the confidence we need to use our knowledge in the world of professions and work.
  3. Exams do not spark our interest or motivate us in any way to learn or to in fact become qualified.
  4. Exams can only provide a piece of paper that says we are qualified in some profession or work skill (which may or may not be true).
Ultimately, however, we will be judged in the performance of actual work. Surely it is preferable to be actually able to do the work, than to have a piece of paper that says you can do it.

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