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What do we mean when we say ‘exam’?

An examination is a timed assessment format that occurs in a supervised environment. Exams occur in controlled conditions and are mainly used at the end of the academic year. Exams are often closed-book, meaning that students are not given any access to books, theories, literature or online resources (although some exams do allow for access to specific materials such as formulae and data sets). This particular assessment condition is best for long and short answer formats, multiple choice questions and problem sets, and is a good way of testing for students’ capacity to recall key information; think on the their feet, and work in a pressured environment.

This resource discusses the uses, design and marking of time-constrained assessments (authored by Claire Gordon, Jane Hughes and Colleen McKenna for the University of London International Programmes).


What are assessment conditions?

It is useful to bear in mind that what is sometimes referred to as an assessment method is, in fact, only the condition in which the assessment takes place and thus only one of several choices to be made in assessment design. The term ‘exam’ mainly describes the conditions under which an assessment will take place – it does not describe the method by which the students will be assessed. Assessment conditions establish the parameters of assessment but within each of these assessment conditions a number of assessment methods may be used. Reflecting on the purpose, timing and assessment mix should help with decisions regarding assessment conditions.

Advantages of examinations

  • Students and teachers tend to be familiar with the format of exams, so very little time is required to prepare students for the process itself.
  • The controlled environment limits the possibility of academic misconduct.
  • Can accommodate many students in a single sitting.
  • Shows students’ capacity to work in a pressured environment.
  • Can test for a wide range of course material in a single sitting.
  • Can encourage students to revise a wide range of information rather than cherry-pick certain topics.

Challenges of examinations

  • Can be quite stressful as a number of exams tend to happen over a very short period of time.
  • Stressful environments tend to lead to students producing conservative answers and playing safe in their responses, rather than formulating critical insights.
  • Exams can encourage students to memorise ‘answers’ rather than use higher order cognitive skills such as synthesis or analysis. Last minute cramming for exams is a poor learning method and encourages surface learning rather than deep learning (Marton & Saljo, 1984).
  • Can lead to peaks and troughs in regards to marking load.

How students might experience examinations

Students tend to be familiar with examinations; therefore this particular assessment condition needs very little explanation to them. They are given a timetable of exams and charged with attending each one on time. In the exam hall, they are given very little guidance beyond the written instructions on the paper and the start and end time. Some students really appreciate the chance to sit and focus in silence, without distraction, as they work through their paper. Other students approach the exam with trepidation – seeing it as an ‘all or nothing’ process. Because past papers are commonly available, students will have some expectations about what they will be asked.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity in exams

The validity of exams can be enhanced through good course design – where exams are designed to test for higher order thinking skills, such as analysis and synthesis, rather than simple memory skills. Exam questions can be shared with academic peers to check their clarity, and should be approved by the department, if required by departmental practice, and by an external examiner. Because this particular assessment condition carries quite high levels of stress, students may not always produce the work that they are capable of. Some adjustments may be made to accommodate student needs (see the section on ‘Accessible assessment’). 

How to maintain and ensure rigour in exams

Writing new questions annually prevents students from obtaining unfair assistance from either past papers or students in previous cohorts, while allowing past papers to be used a revision resource. Departmental practice for marking and moderation should be followed. Individual markers should take steps to avoid the problems which affect batch marking, such as the 'halo' effect where one or two positive characteristics of a student overly influence the marker. 

How to limit possible misconduct in exams

 Given the nature of exams, there is very little scope for academic misconduct. Student entry to the exam hall is regulated and invigilators oversee the exam process itself. There is the possibility that a student may bring written material into the exam hall or may try to access external materials through a digital device. This is not common and good invigilation tends to reduce risk in this area. Overall misconduct tends to be limited and easily spotted in this particular assessment condition.

Accessible assessment in examinations

There are practical design issues to consider when using examinations to assess disabled students; this may include students who have physical disabilities, serious health conditions or sensory impairment, mental health difficulties and specific learning differences, amongst others. Wherever possible design issues should be addressed in the initial course design phase. The Accessible Assessment area of this toolkit provides further information about how this might be achieved. This is a guide and should be treated as such. In all cases the experiences of individual students can be diverse. Teachers should always consult the student’s inclusion plan, as well as speaking to the student directly and be aware of LSE guidance on individual examination adjustments. The discussion in this section is drawn on the work of the Inclusive Practice community at Sheffield Hallam University who we wish to acknowledge and thank.


Physically impaired students

As a general guide teachers should consider the physical access of examination accommodation, both in terms of access routes into the building but also in terms of room layout. For example, is the height of the table suitable, are gangways wide enough for students who experience a physical impairment, or use a wheelchair, to move freely? A physical impairment may not always be visible and may, for example, include students who experience severe pain after a prolonged amount of time writing or sitting. In such cases additional time, a scribe or rest breaks may be recommended.

Students with specific learning differences (SpLD)

Students with SpLD can have difficulty committing information to memory and with memory retrieval, especially when under pressure. For these reasons students with SpLD are often entitled to additional time, separate accommodation and a reader/scribe where appropriate. In exam situations students may rely on ‘basic’ vocabulary in place of words they find difficult to spell and can misread or overlook key words. Teachers should make sure that they mark work for content and understanding rather than structure or standard written English, except where these may significantly impede meaning. The exam paper and any accompanying materials must be supplied in an accessible format. Thought should also be given to question design. Any questions that rely on visual cues, for example, questions that refer to pictures or ask students to interrogate complex diagrams may not be accessible for students with SpLD. Teachers should ensure diagrams and pictures enlarged on a photocopier do not lose clarity, in some cases they may need to be redrawn.

Students with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC)

The term ‘Autism Spectrum Condition’ (ASC) is used to describe the range of the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome. Teachers should provide the student with a clear explanation (written if possible) about the purpose of the exam. Make sure that the location, time, date, and duration of the exam are made clear to the student, preferably in writing. It is useful to illustrate what a completed exam script should ‘look’ like beforehand, including layout and presentation. Practicing for the exam could also include an explanation about how assessments are marked, perhaps explaining that more time should be spent on a question with a higher number of marks. If necessary the student may need a support worker to act to remind them when to move from one question to another so they do not spend all their time in an exam on a single question. Some students with ASC can experience ‘sensory overload’. It is therefore important to ensure that students have the opportunity to raise any difficulties they have that relate to exam conditions. For example, where glare from a window is a cause of distraction. Teachers should make sure that the student is aware that they have the right to raise such issues, and that they know who to raise it with. Before the exam determine whether the student has any particular concerns that will trigger anxiety in an exam situation. Invigilators should also be aware that some students with ASC may lack the language required for articulating feelings and not think to ask for help.

Students with mental health difficulties

If the medication a student is taking causes drowsiness or prevents them from concentrating for long periods of time the scheduling of exams (whether they take place in the morning or afternoon) can be an issue. If this is the case, and practically possible, the scheduling of the exam should be carried out in consultation with the student. In discussion with the student teachers can adopt strategies to reduce exam anxiety. For example, a student may need to be seated by the door or take the exam in separate accommodation to help reduce the fear of a public panic attack. Similarly a student with heightened sensitivity to their environment may need to take their exam in separate accommodation to minimize distraction. Additional time may also be necessary for any students who have ‘checking’ behaviours that can disrupt concentration. The invigilator should ensure they use clear and unambiguous verbal exam instructions. It may be necessary to allow drinks/food or medication into the exam. If this is the case ensure this is agreed prior to the start of the exam and the invigilator is aware of this.


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