World eyes Dubai university's 'bold and innovative' move to scrap exams

Schools may adopt new approach in future, expert believes

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 Dubai educationalist who has provoked international interest by scrapping formal end-of-year exams believes schools all over the world will one day replicate his approach.

Martin Spraggon, associate dean at The Mohammad bin Rashid School of Government, said he had been inundated with comments and enquiries since his policy was made public in The National last week.

He is trialing ending traditional written tests, assessing students by how they perform in solving real-world problems in assignments instead. It is an approach that is supported by modern academic theory but is rarely fully adopted in practice.

He is already planning an event to share the university’s experience with other institutions. Meanwhile, experts praised Professor Spraggon’s “bold and innovative” move although he was also warned of the need for a robust system to ensure students are still judged fairly.

“The traditional methods are not working anymore and we have seen a lot of hunger for this approach,” Professor Spraggon said. “I am receiving a lot of enquiries about our experience.

“In the next five, 10, 20 years, I think people will start buying in to supporting this kind of initiative where there is much more attention on applied knowledge as opposed to just theoretical knowledge.

“If it’s successful, and I strongly feel it will be, I think that we will have these initiatives in the schools in the UAE, GCC and outside. I am in contact with people from Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, who are saying please keep us updated.”


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While the trial will initially involve Masters students, he believes ending traditional end-of-year and midterm exams would work at all stages of education. He said the new assessment criteria, which will see students judged by academic staff as well as government officials or industry experts they will work with to solve real issues, would give a fair reflection of performance. Four external advisers have been appointed to oversee the process.

“My dream is to see kids from kindergarten to university engaging in this,” he said. “Let’s explore, let’s get out of this comfortable zone we are used to.

“One of my ideas is that next year we will hold a best practice forum for problem-based learning, to show other people who are interested what works and what doesn’t work.

“This is not a disruptive change, it’s incremental. If this is going to work — and I think it will — we will be spreading and training other institutions. We will be the pioneers, who can coach other people and give back to society.”

Some education systems are placing less emphasis on high-stakes written exams, although there is usually little appetite to scrap them entirely.

Julie Allan, head of the School of Education at the UK’s University of Birmingham, which has a campus in Dubai, backed the approach adopted by the School of Government, which focuses on developing leadership and public policy in the Arab world.

In a book published last year, Professor Allan suggested that what she described as the ‘assessment industry’ is more concerned with facilitating comparisons between schools and teachers, rather than effectively judging student learning.

“The move by the School of Government to scrap exams is bold and innovative,” she said. “The School appears to have found more appropriate ways of assessing students' learning than the conventional exam which, as the Associate Dean rightly says, is simply a test of memory.

“There is a strong consensus internationally that exams are not generally a good form of assessment. They assess what students can remember rather than what they know and create a great deal of stress.”

Among the countries to change its approach to exams is Singapore, which is renowned for its education system. While standardised assessments will still play a role in the curriculum, they are becoming less frequent.

Reacting to the Dubai School of Government’s overhaul, Pak Tee Ng, an associate professor at the National Institute of Education Singapore who is seen as one of Asia’s leading educationalists, said “it is good to bring student learning closer to real life”.

“Project work, where the assignments are to solve real-world problems, is a good way to achieve that,” Professor Ng said. “However, given a change in assessment mode, a deeper issue that might need addressing is whether there is an over-emphasis on grades. Grades are important, but an over-emphasis may decrease the joy of learning among students.” Wei Shin Leong, a Singapore-based expert on teaching and assessment, said the move by the Dubai college reflected a growing consensus around the dangers of relying too heavily on traditional tests.

“There is growing recognition of the importance of introducing more alternative and authentic assessment in the classrooms, while concurrently improving the kind of assessment items in more conventional assessment,” he said.

“It is a very bold move [by the school of government] and undoubtedly will raise further questions like how are faculty members and students being prepared for such changes — are they all equally supportive and skilful enough to design alternative assessment that purportedly no longer requires standardisation?”