Examination reforms at higher education level

National Education Policy-2020 has comprehensively covered the entire gamut of education and has offered important amendments and transformational reforms both in school education and higher education. The new policy aims to overcome the flaws with which the education system in the country is confronted and also aims to meet the demands of 21st century. At the higher educational level, new policy offers whole gamut of reforms towards multidisciplinary system of education, reorganisation of regulatory systems, transformation of institutional structures, institutional autonomy, reimagining the vocational education, teacher education, enabling learning environment etc. But towards an equally important aspect of education i.e. teaching pedagogy and assessment it makes a mere mention of granting greater autonomy to the faculty in framing teaching pedagogy and assessment. Nothing significant has been recommended in the policy document about the current state of examination and the reforms needed to make assessment more result oriented.

It is known to one and all that everything is not well with the current system of examination at higher education level. We largely continue with the age old examination system  which remains heavily weighted in favour of summative semester/year-end written external examination which suffers from some serious limitations. It is not considered a valid & reliable measure of students cognitive & affective abilities. It is also widely seen as a test of memory, thus fails to assess higher order abilities. Besides, examination in the current form induces anxiety and has come to mean stress & strain thereby renders learning process boring rather enjoyable. The most serious drawback with the current system of examination is that it is punitive in nature rather than diagnostic, remedial and improvement based as it fails toprovide credible feedback to the learners right in time so as to enable them to take remedial measures. At the top of all these serious drawbacks, it does not allow learners to gain dynamic knowledge by allowing them to actively participate in the process of learning and knowledge creation.

Though faculty enjoys autonomy to evolve best practices in teaching pedagogy and assessment yet, it is sad to state that we have collectively failed to change with the changing situations. Unfortunately we continue to use the age old teaching pedagogy and assessment. Our assessment system continues to remain heavily weighted towards summative semester-end written examination which suffers from serious limitations as stated above. The assessment methods should be scientific, designed to continuously improve learning and test the application of knowledge. The panacea for all the ills with which the summative semester-end written examination suffers, lies only in the “Proactive Teaching-Learning System”, the essential features of which includes; continuous, comprehensive and learning outcomes based assessment. Under this proactive system, the assessment is not done at the end of a semester rather continuously by employing diverse assessment methods like Class Tests, Presentations, Case Studies, Games, Role Playing, Project Work and Assignments. Proactive system essentially uses learning outcome based assessment thus allows learners to achieve practical and dynamic knowledge.

Continuous & comprehensive formative assessment system not only allows to assess the subject knowledge but also measures & helps to build and improve life skills (co-scholastic) such as; social, emotional and communication skills and critical thinking. Besides, the teacher-made tests used under proactive system are conducted in a relatively informal and non-threatening atmosphere, thus are considered to have high pedagogical value. It is also that the focus is not entirely on the assessment for formal certification but more to achieve the overall growth & development of a student by continuously assessing the progress of learners so as to provide them feedback for making improvements right in time. As already stated that by nature it is diagnostic and remedial rather than punitive like the summative system of assessment. Proactive system of education is based on a fundamental premise that the classrooms are not homogeneous rather heterogeneous, presuming that some students are very bright and very much interested in their studies; some have basic intellect but require some pushing by teachers; and some are below average or  have less interest in studies, thus require greater focus or pushing from teachers. Under proactive system, students are assessed continuously to identify particularly the last group so as to have greater focus on them with a purpose to make them to improve their learning.     .

Unfortunately our current system of examination involves using same pattern and type of question papers across all disciplines. It is quite illogical to have a same type of question paper across all streams, disciplines & subjects when most of these are quite different to each other. The assessment methods are actually guided by the learning outcomes, therefore, are bound to vary from discipline to discipline and even subject to subject. Besides, format of question papers used currently aims to assess academic knowledge only. Therefore, it generally promotes rote learning which in turn renders the assessment less meaning in today’s demanding & complex landscape of education. It is in view of this fact that the performance awarded under the existing system lacks confidence of the end users like employers and even of the higher learning institutions which while making admissions for higher studies conduct admission tests rather than making admission on the marks awarded by the same university. It is also that the existing format which generally consists of very short, short & long-answer questions, limits the flexibility to test higher-order abilities. These are generally designed to test a detailed knowledge of the text book rather than competencies, application, analysis & synthesis of knowledge. Added to it, there is a greater possibility of the repetition of identical or very similar questions year after year, hence playing in the hands of pseudo-coaching centres. Under the proactive system of education, the continuous & comprehensive assessment methods solves most of these problems. Since it is mainly teacher-centered system, the format of question paper under this system is based on learning outcomes, therefore, varies from discipline to discipline and even within discipline, from subject to subject. Since being not only continuous but also comprehensive, therefore generally teachers use a combination of assessment methods like, class test, project work, presentations, case studies etc. depending upon the nature of the subject. As such allows to assess dynamic & practical knowledge and life skills. The semester end examination is generally theoretical but mainly contains practice oriented questions which allows even open book examination.

Conduct and evaluation under the current summative semester-end examination system is largely centralised and third party paid-up job. Given the number of students at the undergraduate level, arranging logistics for conducting examination by a centralised agency becomes quite formidable, complex and a difficult job. Equally evaluation of  answer scripts  becomes a daunting job due to the largeness and subjective nature of answer scripts which in turn has adversely impacted the quality of evaluation which is evident from the large number of complaints and grade appeals under the current system. Besides, it is time consuming and a very expensive affair. Other than the establishment costs, on an average University of Kashmir bears annually an expenditure of around Rs 8-9 Crores in the conduct of examinations. Proactive system of education provides solution to all these problems. Under this system, in addition to comprehensive and continuous assessment, there is a scope for semester-end examination which is scheduled centrally but the whole process is arranged and managed by the concerned teachers who if requires, are provided with the invigilating staff by a central agency. Therefore, being a teacher-centered system, one it does not become a daunting job for anybody whatsoever and second it consumes less time and is least expensive as conducting the whole process of the examination is considered as a part of the job of a teacher. Open book examination and online proctored examination are some of the modes used to conduct class tests and semester-end examinations. Under the system, the examination results are declared both informally by teachers concerned on the very first day of the next semester and later on formally by the central agency.

The current summative semester-end written examination also lacks ‘Transparency and Accountability’, thus resulting into more complaints and more grade appeals. At the same time, making a grade appeal costs to a student irrespectively of the fact that he or she has every right to see whether marking has been done fairly or not. Besides, being centralised, grade appeal system is time consuming and a costly affair for the students as a result suffers from poor student satisfaction. It is an open fact that there are always question marks on the quality of question papers which at least is evident from the percentage of questions that are usually found either wrong or out of syllabus or with wrong choices of answers with respect to the admission test papers. My personal experience has been that many a times we come across with poor quality question papers, mainly downloaded from the internet. Contrary to the summative semester-end written examination, ‘Transparency and Accountability’ is the hallmark of this proactive system of education. Under this system, on the very first day of a new semester, the teacher has to return answer copies to the students to fulfil his or her right to see whether the answers have been awarded marks fairly or not. A student has a right to question his teacher then and there about the marking if he or she feels to have not been given due marks. After having explained by a teacher, if still a student is not satisfied, he or she is allowed to make a grade appeal to a Dean of the School on a prescribed format readily available on the official website free of cost. Upon receiving the grade appeal, generally the Dean gets the paper re-evaluated by two subject experts and the average of the two evaluators is taken as final. Besides, students are within their rights to cross check with the answer copies of any other student which very rarely happens because of greater accountability in the system. This system of transparency and accountability on the one hand results into greater confidence and student satisfaction and on the other hand into greater accountability of teachers, the net outcome from all this is greater efficiency of the system both from the side of students and the faculty.

Continuous and comprehensive assessment system has a risk of misuse by students and  faculty. While giving assignments, there is every probability that a student may resort to plagiarism which can be easily ascertained by the anti-plagiarism software’s which are readily available in almost all the institutions. Besides, this problem to a great extent can also be taken care of by giving research based projects, Case Studies, Role Playing, Internship Projects and Presentations. In business management subjects, even business games are used to enable the students to practice knowledge in a simulated environment. Equally important risk to this teacher-centered system may emanate from a teacher itself. There is every possibility more so in our ecosystem that a teacher may not be very particular about the quality of assessment process or may fail to maintain competitiveness of the system. But given this potential risk, the solution is not to reject this useful system on this pretext but to put adequate checks and balances in place. Partly this system has been in operation at the post-graduate level but needs to be fully embraced in the interest of better teaching-learning outcomes. NEP-2020 has already recommended a greater autonomy to the teachers to allow them to be innovative and creative in designing the course curriculum, teaching pedagogy, and assessment. Besides the new policy has recommended a continuous formative assessment system to be used. Eventually, the recommendation of NEP-2020 to convert affiliating degree colleges as autonomous degree granting colleges, will allow colleges to be the examining bodies of their own students  which again will pave way for teacher-centered continuous  and comprehensive assessment system. At the top of all these arguments, we need to have a confidence in the integrity of our teachers who surely are worthy to adopt all the progressive changes with a caveat that the academic leaders demonstrate leadership in teamwork, accountability, transparency, excellence and personal integrity and honesty.

Author is Professor, Dept. of Commerce , University of Kashmir.