Thursday, 29 November 2012

There’s more to an exam than passing… or failing - Hewasa Lorin, Director-Student Services & HOD English

What does Nagaland University, Nagaland Board of School Education, Central Board of School Education all have in common with an Ivy League institute like Harvard University? They all use some system of evaluation which we call an EXAM.  How important are exams? Are exams just about the marks we score or is there something more we should be learning from them?

There’s More to an Exam Than Passing… or Failing

As a student, I remember how unpleasant exams felt, especially towards the end of the year. It was an interminable wait for the winter holidays, intensified because of the festive season. Now an adult, you would think that the pressure of exams would be gone, but it’s not. I realize it includes even teachers of students, for that matter, even parents whose children are appearing exams. Exams are a big deal. But of course, that’s something we already know.
 But I think it’s an even bigger deal than we let ourselves believe. 

This year Nagaland University has rolled out its first Semester Examination for the Ist Semester students. Promotion or selection exams have also been going on, some of them about to be over too. Exams have become the norm in the academic world (as well as in the professional world) for assessing a student’s success or failure, as well as a teacher’s success or failure. It’s that time for teachers to see if all the lecturing and shouting in the class have finally paid off and for students to show what they’re capable of. So, it’s a crucial time for everyone trying to prove something to each other and to themselves as well. 

Unfortunately, some students will fail, while others will succeed and move ahead. It’s unfortunate that not everyone passes. But there is something more to exams than simply passing or failing. It’s also about what we have learned in the process and what we do right after. Most of the time, exams in Nagaland are associated with last minute cramming, memorization and putting it all down on paper, only to forget everything a month or even a week after. The majority seem to be more concerned about the result and how one can reap the benefits of an exam without actually preparing properly for it rather than the process involved.

For students who don’t make it through, sure, it’s not the end of the world, but it also means it’s time to find out what you’re doing wrong. Some the greatest inventors like Thomas Edison, who was also homeschooled had to face countless failures before tasting success. We can take solace in the stories of college drop-outs like Bill Gates (Chairman and Founder of Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Founder of Facebook), Michael Dell (Founder and CEO of Dell) who later became great entrepreneurs, but it’s pretty obvious they did not get there by simply sitting back. Not everyone can be successful like the people mentioned above. What sets them apart is that they had a vision, knowledge and experience that offset their academic failures. Ultimately, what really matters is how we pick ourselves up after a failure or even success both in life and academically.If we look at the numbers, passing is not that difficult anymore. In order to get pass mark, taking the example of Higher Secondary students who require 33 marks to pass,, a student just has to attempt a minimum of 33 questions in the question paper, out of 100 marks. If the student has written all 33 questions correctly, then he/she has already passed! That leaves the rest 67 marks for the student to still attempt and make up, in case the other 33 questions are wrong. For successful students - it does not mean success will stay with you forever either. No teacher expects every student to be an Einstein or a Newton, but hard work is required for any amount of success to continue, no matter how bright or intelligent. 

So, how are exams an even bigger deal than we let ourselves believe? Exams are not meant to simply test how much one knows, but they are also there to remind us how much we still need to know. Writing essays, critical analysis’, comparisons, evaluating, highlighting, are all helpful not just for the purpose of writing exams, but in practical life later on. We need to make our students realize this. Exams are helpful even for teachers, primarily, to pick out the strong from the weak and to identify which type of teaching method has worked better and for which student.  For this, analysis of performance by student, teacher and even institution has become just as crucial as teaching. 

With the internal assessment system introduced by NBSE (for Higher Secondary) and NU (for Semester System), the importance of class tests, project work, presentations and assignments have increased as internal marks now carry weightage for the final result. NBSE has done a great job in assessing the performance of students after the HSLC and HSSLC exams for 2012.  In the feedback report of the exam performance, information on the common problems and weaknesses of majority of students were provided, including percentages of marks for each subject. Analysis of this kind can help our students by guiding them on where and how to improve. 

But while analysis is taking place, there still seems to be a larger problem at the heart of exams and the way in which they are being conducted in India. Cases in the past have shown that it is still possible to leak question papers across to students (examples are the Tamil Naidu Public Service Commission and DU’s BCom I distance education question paper leak this year); teachers or authorities still allow cheating in the exam halls, and even provide answers to students. How safe is Nagaland from all these practices? And how fair does this seem for other diligent students? 
What is a 1st division student going to do with his result; if ultimately, he cannot perform as good as the marks on his marksheet. It’s not only the end result or the marks alone that we need to be concerned with. The true mark of an excellent student or institute cannot be measured solely by the marks he scores or the number of ranks an institute secures; it should be more about what a student takes back after an exam.

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