Dubai universities drop exams to focus on 'the real world'

Students will be tested through projects where they will have to think critically, ending the need to memorise

Educator Martin Spraggon thinks students benefit more from problem solving than sitting traditional exams characterised by rote learning. Courtesy Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government 
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A college in Dubai has abolished examinations in an attempt to prepare students for the workplace rather than merely "test their memorisation skills".

The Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government has moved away from traditional teaching methods and is ­instead challenging its students to solve real-world problems through assignments.

“This is a new approach where the outcome of this is abolishing final exams and midterm exams. No more memorisation,” said Prof Martin Spraggon, associate dean.

“Today, for students who come to do a master’s degree with us, there is no such thing as a traditional examination. What you will find from the first day is people from the corporate world, along with ­people from the government coming to talk to you,” he said.

“With the support of faculty, corporations and the government, we are going to mentor students in a consulting journey where they will be solving a real problem through the course and learning real skills.”

Although the move brought cheers from students, Prof Spraggon said the new system would be far more difficult for them because it is not the type of assessment they are used to.

“[But] the students will also benefit more. They will have to complete assignments to solve a real-world problem faced by a corporate or a government entity with mentorship from all parties involved.”

Higher education curriculums, in the GCC, UAE and other parts of the world, are predominantly taught using traditional learning techniques, but a standardised education system in which all students are assessed in the same way is a mistake, Prof Spraggon said.

"We are killing individuality and destroying the uniqueness of people. The education system should focus on people and individuals, and not just on the outcome, but also on the process," he said.

“The main goal is to make you great at what you are great at. That requires a very personalised approach to teaching.”


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The curriculum at Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government is being developed by the faculty with input from the government and some companies to create realistic scenarios that graduates would encounter in the field, and specifically in the UAE.

“I believe the way to develop in-house skills in the UAE particularly, is to develop critical problem-solving skills, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking,” he said.

Keith Rollag, dean of F W Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College, Massachusetts, said the college began moving away from the traditional “lecture-test-repeat” model more than 25 years ago. Most of its classes use project-based learning as a teaching strategy.

At Babson College, which is opening a campus in Dubai, some students apply what they learn through consulting projects with companies, while others use course concepts to explore and develop their own business ideas.

“All of our courses at Babson College use a mix of teaching approaches ranging from self-paced learning through articles and videos to classroom discussions, group projects, guest speakers and personal assessments,” Mr Rollag said.

The college also uses the “flipped classroom” concept, where video lectures and online quizzes are used as class preparation and the class itself is used for application, discussion and personalised coaching.

Mr Rollag said he believes examinations tend to create cram-and-forget learning.

“It motivates students to memorise concepts and formulas well enough to do well on a test, but doesn’t motivate them to actually practise, master and internalise important business skills,” he said.

“More importantly, it doesn’t simulate the workplace – when is the last time you had to study and take an exam at work? While exams can provide short-term incentives for learning, their benefit rarely extends beyond the classroom,” he said.

At the college, grades are typically determined by a student’s performance in classroom and online discussions, group project-based work, individual reflection papers, peer evaluations and to a lesser extent, examinations. Grades are seen as merely one incentive for learning.

"We are more concerned with getting students engaged and excited with course content, and immediately see how their learning can make them a more effective manager. That motivates learning far better – and longer-lasting – than an examination," he said.