Harvard Physics Professor Eric  Mazur challenges the way we assess students

System encourages short term memorisation but not 21st Century Skills

We must move away from measuring pupils’ powers of recall towards the application of knowledge


Professor Eric Mazur a physicist from Harvard University  spoke at SSATs annual conference last week.

In his keynote presentation  he  asked- ‘Why is it that stellar students sometimes fail in the workplace while dropouts succeed?’

One reason he offered  is that most, if not all, of our current assessment practices are inauthentic. Just as the lecture focuses on the delivery of information to students, so does assessment often focus on having students regurgitate that same information back to the instructor. Consequently, assessment fails to focus on the skills that are relevant in life in the 21st century. Assessment ,claims Mazur, has been called the “hidden curriculum” as it is an important driver of students’ study habits. Unless we rethink our approach to assessment, it will be very difficult to produce a meaningful change in education.

Mazur argues for a radical overhaul of the traditional exams system to ensure children are properly prepared for the world of work.

He said at SSATs conference   that forcing teenagers to memorise, by rote,  facts to pass tests no longer had any bearing on life outside school, where children can of course  use Google to search for information in seconds.

Instead, teachers should spend more time promoting a “deep understanding” of key subjects rather than prioritising “short-term memory”, he said. Teachers of course do what the assessment and curriculum (and Ofsted here ) demand that they do.

What current systems for assessment test is predominantly lower order thinking skills. The main demand, and for which students are rewarded, is good  short term memory -that is  remembering and retention of information, over the short term. But this information is quickly forgotten, indeed within days rather than  weeks or months. This is why learning by rote   flash cards  (ie  cards used for revision, with a brief question on one side of the card  and  the  answer on the other,)  which is something of a fad in the States is bad and symbolizes just how wrong  our assessments are  . Higher order thinking skills include the ability to understand,  to apply ,to   analyse, evaluate and create.

Thinking Skills can be envisaged as a pyramid ( ie Blooms Taxonomy) with Creating at the apex ie the highest order thinking skill,    with  Remembering   at the bottom or base , with Understading next ascending the pyramid , then Applying etc

Assessment ,says Mazur,  is currently about ranking and classifying, rather than identifying 21st Century skills.

What are the purposes of assessment?

rate students

rate professor and course

motivate students to keep up with work

provide feedback on learning to students

provide feedback to instructor

provide instructional accountability

improve teaching and learning

Grading   students  though is incompatible with problem solving. Students are largely tested and assessed in isolation, denied contact or interaction with their peers,  and denied  access to information. But why?  In effect its their short term memory and ability to cram that is being rated or assessed , not their ability to problem solve.  Not their ability to apply information. ‘High stakes’ tests promote isolation and cramming. Yet in the real world of work people operate collaboratively and although there is a basic requirement for some facts  to stick with individual students , students  can easily  look up key information  they  need to solve problems and ,crucially, we all   routinely collaborate with colleagues  in the workplace to find solutions. Collaboration is also at the core of all invention,   innovation and creativity( a point made by Charles Leadbeater at the same SSAT conference) .

Grading pupils   is a measure of their standing relative to others. While feedback, on the other hand, reflects  on what has been learnt. So lets focus more on feedback.

Assessment can also deliver a conflict. Your teacher or coach is often your judge or marker. Does that happen elsewhere? This conflict is supposedly resolved by professional objectivity and fairness. However, only lower order thinking skills can really be judged in this way, says Mazur ie Remembering facts. And there are other problems around this,  with grade inflation and cheating.

So what about solutions? We should mimic real life, says Mazur. Assessment should not be about isolating anxious students.  We should have open-book exams you can go into any test with access to sources and notes. And yes you should be able to access Google.

And, as far as testing goes ,while you could have an individual elements students could also be assessed as working in  a team and engaging with others to find solutions ie like the  real world. In terms of marking group activity, one example was given by Mazur – called Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (e-testing). Scratch cards have answers to multiple choice questions. If your team gets the correct answer, with their first choice, you get full marks ie four points . If you get it wrong but consult and get it  right,  at the second attempt, you get 3 points and so on.Mazur has reservations though about the multiple choice format but there are other ways of testing group work he says.

Earlier this year, Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton, insisted the UK education system was “peculiarly uninventive” and the country must row back from its tradition of “ritualised, mechanical” exams.

But Tim Oates, head of research at Cambridge Assessment, who led the government’s review of the national curriculum, defended the exams system to the TES, saying it was not purely intended to prepare pupils for life.

“I believe that examinations are critical; that a form of external assessment is vital and should be administered in the most valid and robust way possible,” he said.


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