How to make exams more 21st century in 5 minutesPear Tree Education
Pear Tree Education
8th Dec, 2012

How to make exams more 21st century in 5 minutes!

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely to be either a teacher/parent that already knows that current exam methods are ridiculously outdated and worthless, or you’re someone that is wondering what could possibly be wrong with them.

Note: If you are more interested in finding out how to modernise exams, please feel free to scroll down the page.

How are exams outdated and worthless?

Current exams are all about:

  • Rote memorisation
  • Handwriting speed and stamina
  • Working under pressure
  • Time management

Take a moment to reflect on these requirements, and then picture Victorian England.

Rote memorisation

Would you be shocked to hear that many people refute the argument that exams are about rote memorisation? I know I am.

Interestingly, I was googling for some information for this page, and came across the following ‘study tips’ provided by the University of Bristol (in England).

I found this article amusing for two reasons:

  • The glaring grammar mistake on page two: “Exams are not are memory tests”! Draw your own conclusions from this.
  • The complete contradiction of this ‘not about memorising’ argument based on the study tip advice: “Exams are not are memory tests… [However] Recall what you have learnt: – memorise information sufficiently – recall under exam conditions”

The article then goes on to say that you shouldn’t cram for exams. However, what it doesn’t mention is that you CAN cram and get amazing grades. I should know. I’m as guilty as anyone for having done so.

But there are two issues here:

  • Memorisation is not a test of higher intelligence.
  • What if you are truly intelligent, but can’t memorise lots of information?

Handwriting speed

How often do you ever hand write anything these days? Almost never, right? Now picture some poor university student writing for 3 hours, or those that do back-to-back exams, so are hand writing for 6 hours!

What if you physically can’t write that long? Does that make you less intelligent? Let’s face it, this is a Victorian ideal.

Why can’t we use a computer to type with instead?

Working under pressure

Although I’m not one of those people that cracks under exam pressure, I went to school with a great number of equally intelligent people that did. They would break out in cold sweats. My best friend deliberately didn’t turn up for a final exam because of the pressure.

Luckily for him the school took pity on him and gave him a second chance.

What is the point of testing for this ability to work under pressure? How many jobs nowadays require this ability? If we were all destined for a job on Wall Street, then fine, but we’re not.

Time management

Actually, I support the idea of testing for time management abilities. This is still a very relevant skill in the 21st century.


Making exams more 21st century in 5 minutes!

It’s actually really easy!

Firstly, let’s keep in mind that intelligence is not about memorisation, but about understanding, applying, creating, evaluating, and analyzing. See the diagram for more details about these different aspects. So, in order to make a exam relevant to higher levels of intelligence, we should eliminate memorisation from the exam.


One way that is already achieved by some teachers/professors is to have an open book exam. This means that the student is allowed to take their book into the exam. This is unlikely to be a textbook, though, so the memorisation of terminology, etc., is a strong factor even in open book exams.

So, although an open book exam is better than a closed book version, it is not my suggestion.

Instead, consider the skills you want to test for, and test for those.

  1. Problem solving and critical thinking
  2. Researching
  3. Evaluating sources
  4. Synthesising
  5. Forming own opinion

Start with a problem to solve. Problem solving and critical thinking should be the core of the exam.

I can’t emphasis how important research skills are! Let the student research the problem. ‘How?’ I hear you ask. If you’re feeling nostalgic, perhaps an actual library (supervised, of course). However, this means that some students could end up taking all of the best books (as often happens in libraries with limited resources). So, what about a digital library, such as Google Books? Anyone can access the same information, and can do keyword searches in these books.

One of the challenges you are setting, therefore, is “How well can you find sources?”

Considering the time limit and the likelihood of the students being able to research and digest so much information, perhaps set an exact limit on the number of sources, e.g. 3.

Now consider the student’s ability to filter, understand, and evaluate such sources. Make this another key requirement of the exam: “You have to choose 3 sources. Faced with so many sources to choose from, how well can you evaluate the quality of the content in order to select the 3 best sources?”

Faced with all of the ideas from all of these sources, the students now have to apply higher level thinking skills. They have to analyse the arguments of different people. Bear in mind that the writers of books/journal articles often contradict each other. So, the students have to evaluate which writers (if any) are right, how they are right/wrong, and why. The students also need to come up with their own argument (i.e. thesis). This is starting to sound like a compressed term paper – and that’s the point! Term papers are far more revealing about a student’s abilities than exams.

The problem with many term papers is that too many teachers/professors are more interested in students writing about what scholars/experts think, and are less interested to hear about ‘new’ ideas/opinions that the students have. I use the word ‘new’ loosely, because I realise that very little is ‘new’. However, students should be encouraged to think-outside-the-box, and not simply regurgitate the ideas of others. Let’s face it, most of university education is simply that – read what others think/did, and write about that. How boring and uninspiring is that?! It shows a total disregard for the ideas and innovation of the students. However far-fetched and naive student ideas may be, schools and universities should be promoting this kind of thinking to create a generation of creative thinkers.

Needless to say, the student’s exam response should be written using a computer.

Although I am 100% in favour of student collaboration, I realise that schools/universities are still obsessed with individual assessment. So, if the school/university does not permit collaboration, the computer should have data recording systems in place to track how the students conducted their research. Using a computer to write answers will make it easier to check for plagiarism, too!

Admittedly, this kind of exam will still involve a degree of pressure. Any kind of assessment will inevitably involve this factor.

Nevertheless, it is a fair evaluation of the student’s true intelligence – higher level intelligence. It tests skills that are 100% relevant to life and work, both now and in the future.

Overall, even this kind of exam isn’t truly 21st century. However, it is a big step in the right direction, and could be done using current school/university resources. What is more, the teacher just needs to think of a relevant question that involves critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The library idea may be a little too geared towards Arts-based courses compared with Science-based exams. However, the basic principles of problem-based exams involving computer technology (i.e. not paper-based) is still relevant for any course.

Just one relevant question… How hard can that be?

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