Mike Ko Personal Portfolio


Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
United Kingdom

     Exams: A Good Indicator of Academic Ability?

A recent article covered how the suicide rate has risen for Singaporean students taking the national public examination, particularly so for top-scoring students in the top-ranking schools. Other places such as Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea are confronted by similar situations, where students in both secondary and tertiary education have committed suicide in not insignificant numbers. In response, various well-known and influential Singaporeans have revealed the relatively low scores they have received in their public exams. They wanted to show that the score was not the only thing that counted.

Before going to university, I wrote a short essay (“Exam & Academic Ability”) that delved into this topic: does performance in exams wholly reflect our academic abilities? Now, having gained additional experiences through my university studies, I found myself reexamining this question once more.

Despite the growing criticisms and challenges leveled against it, examination remains the main method of assessment in most educational systems. Conversely, assessments in my nine years of homeschooled education prior to university focused on effective communication of knowledge. These were either through writings ranging from around 1500-5000 words or oral presentations between 30 minutes to an hour.

I held high hopes that assessments in university would be different from the examination-based approach of secondary schools. A major function of universities is to provide a platform for students to make academic explorations and develop their critical thinking, in addition to obtaining detailed knowledge. Yet the reality is that learning in university is once again limited by traditional assessment frameworks and to an extent the lack of interactive communications between lecturers and students.

In university exams, one must answer defined questions within a standardised time limit. Although there is some flexibility in how questions are interpreted, the range for answers within relevant marking schemes is ultimately restricted. In response, students continue to utilise the study strategies inherited from their time in secondary school. Subjects highly likely to be set in exams are selectively studied, perhaps as indicated by past papers. Learning partly consists of interpreting various cues that may indicate points potentially relevant for the coming exams. Questions in exams are strategically chosen by students to maximise marks.

In my past experience, I have had exams with two questions to be done within two hours, each question requiring around 500-word answers. This format applied to the six modules of the academic year, giving a total of 12 questions. This was the make-or-break moment, the judgement of a year’s study based on works produced in 12 hours. More than a few of my fellow students simply chose to essentially memorise selected topics and train their hands to produce information efficiently.

Yet I resisted against compromising and adopting such study techniques for taking these exams. I struggled confine my answers within the limited scope of the question, having to refrain from including additional details and information. I was often left wondering how one can manage to produce any kind of logical and insightful accounts given the restrictive conditions.

It is not my intention to challenge the rationale behind exams, but I believe many of my fellow students and teachers share the same reservations and frustrations regarding the situation. Yet it is likely that few have the motivation to voice their concerns about this approach towards academic assessment.

As I have stated in my past writings, I understand the merits of exams. The meaningful question now is on how they can be formatted and utilised so that they can accurately reflect academic abilities.


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