Removing exams and rankings can be counterproductive

5 Nov 2018

By Edwin Chan


On 28 Sep, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced several changes to our examination system in a bid to shift student emphasis away from grades and back to learning.

All graded examinations for Primary One and Two students will be removed starting next year. Report books will no longer underline failing marks, highlight overall total marks or reflect class and level rankings. Over the next three years, mid-year examinations at transitional years such as the Primary Three and Five, as well as Secondary One and Three levels, will also be removed.

In place of these would be non-weighted assessments, class discussions and class work to support students' learning and to inform them of their progress.

While these are measures to encourage learning, removing examinations might have its detriments.

Examinations have been proven by studies to help with the retention of information while healthy competition can motivate students to do better. Therefore, there is great value in keeping examinations, class and level rankings. The lack of graded examinations and rankings might result in students not taking their learning seriously.

Not surprisingly, despite Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s reassurance that the changes will “not compromise on academic rigour”, many parents are still concerned that this will not prepare their child adequately for the major national examinations.

In a survey by tuition agency Gavin's Tuition, 90 per cent of 130 parents surveyed are worried that they cannot assess how their children are doing in school without examinations or other key indicators like class and level positions and overall total score. This is despite the fact that students would still be given non-weighted assessments, quizzes and homework.

In fact, parents are already seeking tuition centres that hold in-house examinations, which may consequently cause more stress for students, according to an article by TODAYonline last month.

The value of exams

The removal of examinations might be counterproductive for students as research has shown that examinations can benefit the learning of students in many ways.

According to a 2007 study by the Washington University in St. Louis, tests improve students’ retention of lesson content — a phenomenon psychologists call the testing effect.

Frequent examinations and tests serve as checks for students to gauge their level of understanding on a particular topic. This constant evaluation can provide key information for teachers to better identify students who require more help.

Another study by the same university found that classroom testing is highly effective.

In the study, students who were tested frequently performed significantly better than students who were merely provided readings, as tests allowed them to organise their knowledge and use acquired information to generate new ideas more effectively.

The absence of examinations in Primary One and Two could create room for complacency. Students may think they are doing better than they actually are without these checks in place.

Also, when these assessments are introduced in Primary Three, students might also find themselves struggling to cope with the pressure. They are then left with three years to condition themselves for the eventual Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE).

Frequent graded tests could therefore benefit students in the long run, even though they might cause initial stress.

Competition motivates

In addition, the inclusion of class and level positions promotes healthy competition that, according to multiple scientific studies, motivates students to learn.

For example, a 2013 study by Hamdard Institute of Education and Social Sciences identified competition among students as a method to improve motivation.

The study recommended that teachers should administer a test to students weekly or monthly, and then return the copies immediately with feedback on how they can improve, as well as the student’s position in class.

More importantly, teachers should mention in class why the performance of a particular student is good so that the class can learn collectively, according to the study.

Being aware of one’s standing in class could serve as a good motivating factor for students to want to work harder and do better.

While examinations and competition are good for students, what will benefit them more is a supportive learning environment. Examinations should not cause added stress if parents are encouraging, provide constructive feedback and work closely with teachers to identify how their child can improve, rather than dole out punishments for bad grades. Celebrating the children’s successes outside of the academic realm could be a good way to encourage learning too.

Perhaps, grades and examinations should be removed only for subjects which are meant to promote holistic education.

Currently, some of these subjects such as Civics and Moral Education, Health Education and Music are graded. As these subjects will not be tested at the major examinations, not grading students in these subjects could help to reduce emphasis on grades.

Instead, MOE could implement their proposed changes, i.e. the non-weighted quizzes and class discussions, specifically to these subjects to encourage participation. Frequent feedback sessions can be held, where students help one another work on their weaknesses.

This model of teaching could reduce the pressure that students face as they no longer have to work towards acing these subjects. They will then find more joy in attending these classes, which could help to nurture their passions and interests. More time can then be placed on studying for the other examinable subjects.

Thus, while we should keep the existing assessment metrics and system, parents can share the responsibility with the schools to place less emphasis on their grades. A supportive and nurturing environment is crucial in promoting the joy of learning, instead of merely reducing the competition associated with examinations.