Merlin Crossley’s erudite and thoughtful opinion pieces on higher education are a highlight of CMM. But in our view, his recent article extolling the virtues of invigilated examinations overstates their benefits and perpetuates some unhelpful misconceptions.

Crossley likens invigilated exams to the “Erg”, a rowing machine that in his student days was legendary for testing an athlete’s strength and endurance. He argues that, just as it was impossible to cheat on performance on the Erg in front of an audience, so too invigilated exams provide a “test of truth” that is a valuable and necessary part of the curriculum.

In fact, invigilated exams are no less vulnerable to cheating than other forms of assessment. Yes, students sit them in open spaces under close observation from invigilators and are required to furnish photo ID. But in surveys of tens of thousands of university students in Australia and elsewhere, they have confessed that they cheat more often in examinations than they do in any other form of assessment, using strategies that range from collusion to impersonation. In a 2005 study of over 60,000 North American university students, a staggering one third of students admitted to some form of exam cheating. A journalistic investigation in Australia revealed just how easy it is for students to obtain a forged university student card and have another student sit the exam for them.

As a result, the authors of a recent major study of cheating by Australian university students concluded that “an over reliance on examinations, without a thorough and comprehensive approach to integrity, is likely to lead to more cheating, not less.”

Crossley further argues that invigilated examinations are fair and “certify individual capability”, because like the Erg, they allow people to disrupt established structures of privilege and receive recognition for achievements that result from talent, determination and hard work.

Sadly, it’s not that straightforward. It is well known that the examination format heavily favours students who are able to perform well under time pressure and who are good at recalling information. Students from advantaged backgrounds benefit from much more extensive coaching and support around exam preparation. And there is a burgeoning literature around how examinations are linked to physiological stress and anxiety, which affect some students more than others.

Several studies also suggest that the examination format may promote academic inequity in relation to gender (in those studies women performed worse than men on examinations but the reverse was true for non-examination assessments). They may also contribute to disadvantage for students from ethnic minorities, Indigenous students and students with disabilities.So, as a “sorting hat” (to use Crossley’s term) it seems more likely that the invigilated examination format perpetuates, rather than disrupts existing hierarchies of academic privilege.

We also disagree that concern about the authenticity of invigilated examinations “misses the point.” It is indeed impossible to mirror the complications of real life in a single assessment item: this is why it is important to have diverse assessments that can measure progress towards multiple learning goals in a subject and allow students to develop and demonstrate a broad range of different skills.

Ironically, invigilated exams are particularly ill-suited to assessing the kinds of skills and knowledge students will need in their future careers. And because they tend to attract heavy assessment weightings, their use often “crowds out” the space available in the assessment regime for other assessment types that might be more authentic (e.g. peer assessments, inquiry-based learning tasks, and group-based assessments).

Examinations raise a series of other concerns, including the fact that they tend to encourage “surface” rather than “deep” learning, and their low reliability (their ability to produce consistent and dependable results) due to a range of factors related to the examinee, the examiner, test conditions, subject matter, the test items and how the examination is scored.

These concerns notwithstanding, we are not arguing for any kind of blanket ban on invigilated examinations. They may have their place in particular disciplines, provided that they are well-designed and appropriately weighted. But the enduring fondness academics have for invigilated examinations is not always backed up by evidence.

Raoul Mulder and Sarah French

Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne


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