Students learn better through assignments, not exams

It’s time the university does away with ridiculous and inaccessible exams

Assignments are much better for students, especially international ones. PHOTO: Muhammad Haikal Sjukri / Unsplash

by Lubaba Mahmud, Peak Associate

The fact that I see so many posts with some variant of “course suggestions with no exams? TIA” on the Facebook group “Must Knows for SFU Courses” says something about the way SFU students want to learn. The comments, which are filled with suggestions and expressions of annoyance about exams, show that a lot of students look for alternative grading criteria. This may be because we learn a great deal through participation and assignments of various forms, but I’m not sure whether we actually learn when we’re cramming for exams. Therefore, assignments that challenge our learning at a higher level and are a much better alternative to evaluating students’ knowledge.

Assignments, like essays, are a lot better for my learning experience. Exams induce a lot of fear and often lead to cramming, a defence mechanism that isn’t great for my, or any other student’s, mental and physical health. I’ve noticed that sometimes I get so burnt-out that I’m not actively reviewing my course materials, just reading them absent-mindedly so that I can cross it off my to-do list. On the other hand, that doesn’t happen when I’m researching for an essay. I’m more focused because I have to look for the author’s main ideas and paraphrase them in my own words, or even actively apply a theory to explain something I’ve come across. 

Moreover, we’re encouraged to discuss assignments with TAs and professors; I’ve done so several times and this sparked many interesting conversations beyond the classroom. In my experience, this kind of intellectual discussion does not happen in classes that are weighed more to exams. At most, the instructor simply posts the solutions and asks students to talk to them if they have questions. Students are more focused on finding the answers to the specific set of questions they’ve received for the exam and don’t explore the material further. 

Assignments are especially more relevant than traditional exams in our current remote learning environment. For one, essays and creative projects often need more higher-order thinking than exams do, as the latter may be more focused on remembering materials with set solutions, while the former asks for individual interpretations. This reduces the chances of cheating, as students can’t simply copy from each other. 

They are also more accessible for international students who are living in different time zones. I’ve been given disastrous exams at 4 a.m. during remote learning, leaving me to be a demotivated mess for the entire term. Instructors have told us to be “ready for unusual hours of commitment,” but they are basically asking us to suck it up even though international students pay exorbitant amounts of tuition fees and should be given time zone accommodations for timed exams. I know instructors will argue that exams are meant to test our knowledge, but when they’re at such inaccessible hours they’re only testing my ability to stay awake, rather than how well I know the subject. 

These timed exams also have additional nuisances that add to those problems: technological issues like Canvas glitches and invasive proctoring software. I have experienced both of these and they resulted in professors sending an all-caps email with the subject line “STOP SENDING ME EMAILS ABOUT THE EXAM.” It’s funny when I look back on it, but not so much when I’m trying to write an exam worth 30% of my grade while checking emails for updates, which wastes precious time. Needless to say that these stressful problems do not occur when we’re required to do an assignment and are given sufficient time for it. 

Exams are old-fashioned and ridiculous in this day and age, and assignments are much better for testing our true knowledge — it’s time SFU recognizes this.