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How do we truly assess success and long-term achievement in learning: exams, or innovative contextualised creative assessment?

Christine Challen

There is a continual debate and discussion about exams – whether it is standard attainment tests (SATs) at primary school or GCSEs and A-levels at secondary – and how effective they are not only at assessing but, more importantly, preparing a generation of critical, questioning and innovative thinkers that are able to solve real-time problems and make connections across subjects. The drive for such attributes in industry and business and among employers means that educators must consider putting less emphasis on exam culture, and more on developing equally accountable assessments that aid the development of questioning, higher-order and problem-solving transferable skills. The stress and anxiety that exams bring to pupils, both younger and older, further demonstrates the need for revising and re-evaluating how we assess and provide an engaging creative curriculum and environment to prepare our children for an ever-changing and increasingly technology-driven world.

So what is the exam fever that seems to have become the sole controlling and liable factor in teaching and learning?

Does it really benefit pupils, or is it just about data and boosting school statistics?

The importance of, and need for, creative curriculum and assessment

The idea for this blog came while reading an excellent book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (2017). He takes us on a detailed historical journey through the discovery and understanding of heredity, including some of the great giants in the field: Darwin, Mendel and Galton to name a few. However, unbeknown to me, Darwin, Mendel and Galton all ‘failed their exams’ – and this ‘failure to achieve conventional milestones of success’ (ibid: 103) is a recurrent theme throughout this book.

As I continued reading, I had the distinct feeling that Darwin, Mendel and many others described were questioning. They were curious to know about heredity and variation, and this, together with their sheer determination and inventive minds, allowed them to design strategies and ideas to answer these questions at a time when technology was far less advanced. Critically, in my view, the reason for their successful innovation was that they were able to think freely without time restraints or the pressure to perform in an exam.

Craig Parkinson speaks to both teachers and students on Twitter when he says ‘Be curious, be confident, make connections’. The idea of ‘connections’ is reminiscent of a quote from Paul Kalanithi’s recent book, When Breath Becomes Air: ‘Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world’ (2016: 172).

We need to embrace these ideas, and design interdisciplinary pedagogic strategies that will build a generation of experts not just in one subject area but in a significant number. This will enable people to draw on this wide and complex body of knowledge to solve specific problems, leading to a society made of polymaths and inventors that will ensure essential transferable skills for successful employment.

How can we do this?

One of the ways is to embrace the idea that STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today. ‘We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural and social as well as the computational’ (Davidson 2017). This would involve the creation of a questioning, open teaching, learning and assessment environment in schools and colleges, in which students are encouraged to have discussions about real problems – and about scientific, cultural, artistic and social issues – and to think about methods to solve them, thereby allowing interconnections between subjects and subject areas.

Another approach is to embed art in STEM teaching. Examples of this include the use of Da Vinci’s anatomical artwork to enhance the teaching of anatomy to medical students. The use of Candy Anatomy, where organs and cellular structures are made out of sweets, is an approach I have successfully used to develop students’ visual thinking and composition of cellular organs. The drive towards a more creative strategy in STEM teaching may boost the number of girls taking STEM subjects, which is an area of concern. Furthermore, setting students an assessed task of designing YouTube videos to develop visual understanding of complex science topics can also help to develop enthusiasm for STEM subjects, as well as act as peer learning tools.

Community projects and outreach activities with embedded assessments are all excellent, engaging ways to enrich critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The use of summative exam assessment, as well as creative techniques as described above, ensure a questioning, discussion-based teaching and learning environment.

As Einstein said, ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’, and, ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning’.


Davidson C N (2017) ‘The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students’, Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 20 December 2017. [link]

Kalanithi P (2016) When Breath Becomes Air: What makes life worth living in the face of death, London: Vintage

Mukherjee S (2017) The Gene: An Intimate History, London: Vintage