It’s time that we rethink the necessity of exams in classrooms

Even before remote learning, exams created undue stress on students while failing to accurately assess their abilities

Three students at a table writing an exam. The student on the left and right are campy writing while the student in the middle has stood up onto the table and lit their exam on fire.
Midterms aren’t as scary as you think. Illustration: Maple Sukontasukkul/The Peak

By: Madeleine Chan, Staff Writer

SFU recently announced that the final exam schedule for all classes will be released in October, rather than at enrollment. The change hopes to reduce course conflicts, back-to-back exams, and same-day exams. However, it also adds to student stress about asynchronous scheduling, non-school-related plans, and an overall uncertain future. Growing concerns around proctor software and cheating show that there is no easy solution for remote-learning examinations. Even SFU is saying that they prefer other methods of assessment over proctored exams. So, why do we still have them if they are such a burden? The fact that there are viable alternatives to timed, closed-book examinations shows why exams should no longer be given at all.

The point of exams is to test students’ knowledge and information retention. But are students really showcasing their best abilities when they are faced with such anxiety inducing situations? I cannot tell you a single thing about the last exam I took, because all I remember is being under incredible pressure to study hard for it, to manage my time wisely in the exam, to have the right answers, and to not be the last one out of the class. Not to mention the Sauron-like eye of the teacher beaming down on me, ready to “catch” me for any potential misstep. Something that produces such overwhelming stress and fractured focus seems like a fundamentally flawed way to assess students. Just the very idea of the recurring dreaded melancholy around exam season should be enough to see that exams are a detriment to our mental health.

Exams are also a hollow way of ensuring that students actually comprehend the materials they are learning about. Students don’t need to be regurgitating information, they need to be able to actually comprehend the subject matter and be able to apply it in an at-large context. The binary idea of answers either being right or wrong limits students’ creativity and thinking skills. In addition, the idea that exams are a way to measure students against each other is just a meritocratic ideal that sees learning as a way to get a job, not a complex process of engaging with themselves, the world, and others. We shouldn’t be insisting on assessments that promote these ideas if we want our quality of learning to be at its best.

Exams do have the potential to instill skills like time management and discipline, but this is not the case for all students. People with anxiety and attention difficulties can’t simply “learn” to focus or keep calm in a stressful situation. Even students who don’t struggle with these issues can still feel an immense amount of strenuous pressure while managing their focus and time effectively. This necessarily syphons mental energy away from course materials and produces results that don’t accurately reflect student knowledge or ability.

Exams are particularly harmful now with all learning done online. There are added stressors of unreliable technology, video call anxieties, changing physical environments, and surveillance software that have changed how students interact with learning. Instructors cannot expect to deliver examinations in the same way if students cannot react to them in the same way as before. Remote learning has only highlighted the fact that exams are more trouble than they are worth.

I agree that with academia’s current credentialist system there has to be some way of testing student knowledge, but that could take shape in so many other ways than an hours-long stress bath with your classmates. Assignments like untimed essays, final projects, and even papers can be less stressful and more pleasant than exams. Creative projects, for example a video, or a zine, in particular are a great way to creatively and interestingly engage with course materials. I remember a final assessment that I had over a year ago, where I had fun making a 3D collage that explored the course’s themes. I still remember that project and its material today.

Not every course can just assign one of these alternatives though, and there is no one-size-fits-all replacement. But we have to at least consider alternatives to testing students’ knowledge so that learning and assessing can be something interesting to engage with, effective and comprehensive, and not a burden for students to stress over.