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Redefining success: Embracing alternative assessments in higher education

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In her OP-Ed “Exams are at risk of extinction,” Chronicle opinion columnist and first-year Anna Garziera examines the current trends of American higher education shifting away from exams — think blue book midterms and the SAT and ACT you had to take for admissions — as the gold standards for success. She claims that exams provide valuable benchmarks for success and that we’re losing something precious by removing ourselves from exam culture. Furthermore, Garziera argues that the stressful nature of formal examinations actually builds resiliency, so that students can maximize their potential.

But do these exams actually help students retain information long-term? Are they helping learners learn?

First, a quick bit about me: I work as a learning experience designer for Duke Learning Innovation, a group that partners with faculty to teach and support quality, student-centered education at Duke. While I help design online courses, other members of my department consult with faculty on teaching and technology and conduct research on education and assessment.

Now to answer our questions.

Educational psychology suggests that high-stakes examinations — either in admissions tests like the SAT or the traditional midterm/finals format— work counter to the psychological processes of human memory. Dr. Sanjay Sarma, the head of open learning at MIT, wrote that high-stakes examinations are actually a detriment to the long-term retention of information. Students who cram — a process familiar to most university students — earned better results on test day. But compared to students who spaced their learning over an extended period — five hours over five days instead of five hours the night before an exam — they retain less information over time. Crammers forget much of what they studied as they move into the next semester or course.  Although professors aren’t counseling their students to study in this manner, the culture surrounding high-stakes examinations perpetuates this approach. When good marks on high-stakes exams are imperative to the ‘next step,’ such as the job or the graduate program of choice, students will cram. 

There’s a concept in the psychology of memory called cognitive load. There’s a gap between the information you already know and the information you are learning. Ideally, one could fit as much information as possible into this gap, à la an all-you-can-eat buffet. But you’re limited here by your cognitive load — the idea that there is a limited amount of information a human brain can take in at any given time. 

You can break the cognitive load of any learning experience — whether changing a tire or analyzing data from a particle accelerator — into three parts: the intrinsic, extraneous and germane loads. The intrinsic load — how innately difficult is the information? — can’t really be changed. However, the extraneous load — ways the instructional materials simplify or hinder direct instruction of the topic — and the germane load — the effort needed to process the information being learned — can be refined to maximize learners’ innate capabilities for long-term memory. Exams create enormous amounts of anxieties that overburden the extraneous and germane aspects of cognitive load. In the pressure cooker environment of studying for and taking a high-stakes exam, working memory becomes less efficient at converting information to long-term memory.

But Garziera also argues a more subtle point: The stress of high-stakes exam culture builds resiliency. She claims that, besides the fact that good grades on these exams are needed for good opportunities, the resiliency that comes from exam stress will lead to future success. The dad in “Calvin and Hobbes” is famous for saying “It builds character” about anything from a bad school day to biking in a blizzard. Although I always identified more with Calvin, I see the wisdom in Garziera’s argument. Stress leads to peak performance, and then the expertise achieved after the stressor can lead to continued success … but it all depends on what kind of stress we’re talking about. 

Good stress is doable stress. It happens when there is a gap between the known and the unknowable. Good stress happens when the target is still slightly out of reach, but you can get there with support. Garziera’s anecdote about her first overnight class trip in kindergarten is a great example of an educator leveraging good stress into a great learning experience. While the kids’ first night away from their families was always going to be a scary experience, Garziera’s teacher helped little Anna adapt by dancing with her. Here we see how the teacher bridged the gap between the known — the positive relationship between student and teacher — and the unknown of a night away from family, by highlighting a familiar, joyous relationship. The teacher didn’t tell the children to power through, or be grateful for the rigorous educational experience that they were embarking on. Rather, she supported her students by helping them bridge an experiential gap. High-stakes exam culture does not leave room for this kind of support. Rather, learners are forced solo across this gap, and some don’t make it.

What is being done at Duke in response to our improved understanding of the psychology of learning? What kinds of assessments are taking the place of high-stakes exams? Exams don’t necessarily equal the practice of complex skills and information that has been in long-term memory, and my department works with faculty and students to help bring pedagogically — that is, things related to teaching — best practices in all learning spaces at Duke. For example, best practice in the pedagogy of assessment involves opportunities to do project-based assessments, and there have been a number of Duke professors we’ve worked with — such as Dr. Len White in neuroscience — who put this into action in their teaching. 

I’d love to know more about the experiences of navigating the student side of this shift in our educational ecosystem. My colleagues periodically survey Duke students to gain a better understanding of what their learner experience has been so we can continue to improve the Duke educational experience.

But all our work and discussion around high-stakes exam culture is nested inside American university culture as a whole. How do the pedagogical changes that Duke students see in the classroom impact our wider Duke ecosystem? How do they reflect changes in the ecosystem of American universities as a whole?

How do we know we’ve been successful if we haven’t gone through multiple barriers of entry, like high-stakes examinations, to get to our goal? I imagine students at Duke think about this frequently. Many of you probably picked Duke because of its selectivity, and what that implied about the quality of education. 

Garziera’s questions of success, what it means to be successful at Duke and after Duke, alongside her questions about what value, if any, we should place on high-stakes examinations, or even how to psychologically cope with our rapidly changing world, are all philosophical questions. I firmly believe that anyone who works in and for the Duke education system should become a philosopher — that is, a lover of wisdom and knowledge. As we embrace digital tools and platforms for education, we are going to see society shift its understanding of what universities do. 

I’m excited to make Duke a multifaceted place where the love of wisdom, academic exploration and intellectual development can coexist alongside knowledge-based skills training.

Maria Kunath is a learning experience designer for Duke Learning Innovation. She encourages all students who are interested in working with Duke Learning Innovation to email


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