Preparing for learning beyond school - why exams need to change

Looking to Higher Education for solutions

Lulu McConville recent graduate

Assessments such as GCSEs and A levels are frequently seen as a ‘passport’ to higher education, allowing those who obtained desirable grades to go where they wish to continue studying and specialise in an even narrower field than at A level. It can be assumed, then, that those setting GCSE and A level exams are trying to create an assessment that prepares one for continued learning in higher education.

I was lucky enough to go to a University College in the Netherlands that employed a very different assessment model. At my university, exams never comprised more than 40% of my grade. In a way however, A levels and GCSEs left me grossly unprepared for the assessments I would encounter at university. I was not at all used to being marked and graded on my performance throughout a course rather than on the day of a final exam. Furthermore, my degree was structured around ‘global challenges.’ This meant that in whichever major a student chose, at the heart of your studies was a desire to identify, explore and address the major global challenges the world faces today, such as global warming, inequality and questions over global health and lack of healthcare. 

My degree was composed of 8-week courses, worth 5 credits each, which – in addition to a thesis worth 10 credits – must add up to 180 credits overall to graduate. Courses were divided into four levels based on the amount of student-led research they entailed, the highest level being the thesis. Certain courses had pre-requisites. At the end of each of these, you would be given an overall grade for your transcript. 

The really interesting part of my degree, however, was how my grades were determined in each course. Within my first block (8-week term), I had to do a graded presentation (the first I had done possibly ever), an in-class debate for extra credit and write essays and reflections based on my readings. All of these contributed to my final grade – the same grade that appears now on my graduating transcript. Within my first year, I had acted in a play to represent the work of pre-eminent social theorists, worked on group projects that involved presentations, poster design and written reports, written lengthy book reviews and participated in stakeholder debates in which I argued against the use of GM crops. 

In one of my most valuable and enjoyable courses at university, one requirement was volunteering at a local school in the city, which helped students who had recently arrived in the country learn Dutch and English before they were transferred to a mainstream school. When Covid hit, I was taking this course, and so my volunteering moved online. I helped a student in New York pass their Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) examinations with one-on-one tutoring and mentoring. My professor was passionate about not just learning about education and pondering it from a classroom but actually seeing the effects and facing the challenges of standing in front of a classroom. This challenged me in a way that essay writing or exam taking never have. 

I also had the very rare experience of actually widening my studies when I got to university. Having solely studied the humanities since I was 16, I found myself having to take a semester of math and taking a refresher math course during Christmas holidays. I studied the history of philosophy, the history of science, as well as ‘Peace and Justice’ – a global politics course – ‘Sustainability’ – science with a heavy environmental focus, – and ‘Prosperity,’ – a broad economics and governance course. I was put very much out of my comfort zone but I think it was incredibly valuable that students were required to build upon key skills of critical thinking and perseverance in order to pass these courses they may not be familiar with. 

Each of my courses, across the three and a half years of my studies, always included a participation grade of about 15%, so about 15% of my degree is down to my ability to participate in classroom discussions, engage with my peers and throw myself into my studies. In my first year at university, and occasionally after I chose my major, I did take some exams. However, these exams were treated very differently to what I was used to. I didn’t prepare for them in the same way and they looked to me very different from what I had encountered in school.

The sole purpose of these exams was always to see if we had understood the concepts discussed in the course. Not to remember them, but to understand. 

Of course, I revised and refreshed my memory of the course readings and discussions, but the exams wanted to know my thoughts on what I had read, they wanted me to be able to argue a side and to articulately bring together what I had learned to make my points. They were never as hugely stressful as the exams I took in school because I always knew they counted for less than half of my grade.

We would frequently discuss the exams in class and revise together; our teachers wanted us to take away as much as we could from the courses and for that knowledge to broaden our interdisciplinary learning, not to test our memorisation tactics. This meant that there was no culmination of stress during my studies. In fact, my last semester of university was one of the most relaxed I experienced. I was able to craft my time how I wanted, being told that I must meet certain academic requirements, and then arranging my own course schedules and study plan as I wished.

The formulation of the assessments at my university showed a deeper desire for us to take something more from our time there, something that spoke to me of why I wanted to pursue higher education in the first place: a genuine love of learning, an inquisitive and critical mind, and creative problem solving.  

My university, although rare, was not unique in its mission, approach and assessment methods. Similar universities, mostly liberal arts colleges, have been kicking around for a while in Europe and the rest of the world. There is now the London Interdisciplinary School, which seeks to educate its students on a range of real-world problems, with academia at the core, but using these problems as the framework for learning. The LIS along with universities like mine, identify that the problems we are facing in the 21st century are not confined to a single discipline. As such, we should not be studying just a single discipline; rather, we should be taught using an interdisciplinary approach which is far closer to the realities of life.

Reflecting on how my secondary school education could have better prepared me for university…

  • I wish my school had encouraged interdisciplinarity across my subjects. For example, teaching us about the history of science, the politics of history, and enabling us to do independent research that connected subjects rather than separated them.
  • I wish my school had employed a wider variety of assessment methods. I will always remember asking a question in a year 11 chemistry exam and being told I didn’t need to worry about it because that wasn’t on the exam.
  • I wish I had received an education where learning was not entirely bounded by endless exam syllabi.
  • I wish my secondary education had exposed us to a wide range of real world skills – presentations, working together as a group, interacting with people outside of our school bubble.

I really wish that learning had been celebrated so that it wasn’t simply a process of taking a subject to get a grade to sixth form. The assessments we take at school should be able to adapt to the shifts in higher education and, through this adaptability, prepare us sufficiently for learning beyond school. 

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