Essex Drops Year-End Philosophy Exams


The University of Essex Department of Philosophy will no longer be requiring its second- and final-year undergraduate students to take formal, year-end written exams, as departments at most other British universities still do. In an essay in The Guardiandepartment head Fabian Freyenhagen writes:

We realised, in response to feedback from students and employers, that exams were not testing them in the right way. We also realised that we could offer students so much more in the summer term than just revision and testing. Exams clearly have their merits. But in the advanced study of a subject like philosophy, we need to test students’ ability to think in an original and creative way, rather than simply their power of recall. Formal exam conditions are poorly suited to testing the skills that are honed by a philosophy degree: problem-solving, independent learning, collaboration, interpretation and presentation; attributes that are prized by employers across a range of careers…

We also looked at the department’s past results solely on the basis of coursework: there would have been no significant change in degree outcomes. And where there were marginal improvements, these would have slightly benefited female students, who tend to be under-represented in philosophy…

We know that dropping formal written exams goes against the national education trend in schools, which are being told that A-level students need to be tested with more exams. Students arriving at university are accustomed to learning for tests: they have learned to look for the easy options, the minimum they need to cram into their heads to do well in exams. Teachers tell us that they don’t get the chance to teach philosophy properly any more. We need to counteract this. We want students to have a deep understanding of philosophy and our assessment methods need to reflect this.

More here.

Have departments at other British universities considered or made a similar change? And is it for the better?

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Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
5 years ago

As someone who works in the educational assessment industry, I guess I have a mixed – but mostly positive – review of what I’m reading here. Assuming these are multiple choice exams focused on the *academic content* of philosophy courses (e.g., recalling definitions of key terms, identifying features of specific philosophical works/views/arguments), I’m on board. That really shouldn’t be the primary way of assessing postsecondary students, and the research I’ve done and read would suggest that Essex has made the right move. Essex identifies “problem-solving, independent learning, collaboration, interpretation and presentation” as what they’d like to assess. That’s totally correct (though, if I were picking nits here about terminology, I’d probably add “critical thinking” as a key term/focus).

But they’ve set up a false dichotomy between “formal exams” on the one hand and “problem-solving, independent learning, collaboration, interpretation and presentation” on the other. It’s entirely possible to assess most of those latter things on formal exams, and many people in the assessment industry are working on innovative ways to do this, particularly using simulations, games, and various other alternatives to more traditional testing. And it’s worth noting that even traditional multiple choice exams, correctly written, can assess many of these things. And can assess them with very good validity evidence, at that (validity evidence that is often lacking from essay or short answer testing, which seems to be the main alternative people provide to “formal exams”).

This is all to say that the problem is that the exams seem to over-emphasize academic content at the expense of generalizable and transferable skills that form the core of the value provided by an education in philosophy.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
5 years ago

One correction/addendum: I’m not sure of the format of these British exams. Perhaps they are essay exams and not multiple choice? Either way, I think the points I made above would be about the same.Report

G A Forbes
5 years ago

The University of Kent hasn’t had exams in Philosophy for a number of years.
We’re glad to see Essex following our lead.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

For me a principal purpose of final exams, which I give at the end of 12-week philosophy courses, is to get students to revise, i.e. to go back over the material we’ve covered and start to see connections between topics that they couldn’t see when we discussed them one after another. It’s to get them to synthesize material they were initially presented in chunks. (Yes, they could do this on their own, without a final exam. But, realistically, how many would?) And the exam doesn’t remotely test “recall”; the Essex philosophers’ reference to that makes me wonder what kind of exams they were giving. A philosophy exam should ask for extended essay-type answers that synthesize ideas covered in the course and demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of them. Those are actually things you need if you’re going to do the creative and original work the Essex philosophers are interested in.Report

annonnnn
annonnnn
5 years ago

Most university philosophy exams in the UK are essay based.

Tom in what way do you think an essay based exam a better way to make students do that kind of synthesis than a coursework essay?Report

Jenny Saul
Jenny Saul
5 years ago

I don’t think it’s actually the case that most UK universities are end-of-year exam based. My impression over 20 years has been that those still using this system are very much the outliers.Report

Anon Prof
Anon Prof
Reply to  Jenny Saul
5 years ago

That is very much my impression as well.Report

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith
Reply to  Jenny Saul
5 years ago

I’ve only been here 3 years, but what Jenny Saul said above fits my impression as well.Report

undergradanon
undergradanon
5 years ago

In my humble opinion, there simply should not be any exams in philosophy courses–or at least there shouldn’t be exams in upper-level philosophy courses. The very idea is ridiculous. Philosophers should not be tested on how well they can “philosophize” or think and write in, say, 2 hours. A paper takes (minimally) weeks to write and review. To grade someone’s ability on what they can produce in a few hours is just plain silly. Which is especially why the “analytic writing” section of the GRE is stupid (though, philosophy grad programs shouldn’t require the GRE at all, really). Granted, students are forced to learn little tidbits of information that they can regurgitate when the exam comes, but is that really valuable? Instead of an exam, the student should have to write a large (maybe 15 page) paper. This way they directly interact with the ideas and think and develop them. And isn’t that what is important? This is far, far better than memorizing some facts or answering questions in an hour or two. PLEASE, PLEASE professors change your style. Exams do not allow for good philosophy, nor do they enhance it.Report

A nonny mouse (UK faculty)
A nonny mouse (UK faculty)
5 years ago

Oddly, I have the opposite impression to Jennifer Saul, so I’m not sure what’s going on there. Unless she means that exams now often take place at the end of each semester rather than all together at the end of the year, or else that most universities now assess students in a mixture of ways only some of which are exams?

I agree what what Tom Hurka says above. One further reason to favour exams is that they help to ensure that students have learnt the full breadth of the topics in a course, unlike a coursework essay which is typically focused only on one small portion of a course.Report

Grad Student (Essex)
Grad Student (Essex)
5 years ago

I welcome this change. Two quick points:

1) Although, unlike course-work essays, written, essay-style exam questions made me revise the whole semester’s work as an undergraduate, this was not at all helpful for me. The key reason for this is that, like many other students, I would revise everything within a few weeks, and then forget it all within a month of doing the exam. In fact, I can’t remember a single exam question, let alone what I answered, from my undergrad years. In contrast, I can remember a fair few of the essays I wrote, since these really took time and dedication. I think this is the same for many, although probably not all, others.

2) Most universities in the UK (say that they) use a mixture of essay-style exam questions and course-work essays, so I have the opposite impression to Jenny Saul. At least this is what I remember from when I was looking around to apply for my Philosophy BA six years ago (Kent was a notable exception, and I almost applied there because of this single factor; in the end I didn’t apply, because I was interested in different areas of philosophy to those covered at the Kent department as far as I recall).Report

Postgrad
Postgrad
5 years ago

I can remember my undergraduate essay on Hobbes, and one on the Scottish Moral philosophers. I can even remember how I argued about Smith. And I remember feeling happy about researching for them. I can’t remember a single exam question, what I answered, or which specific marks I got. I do remember being nervous, studying instrumentally taking a lot of time, and hating the whole exercise as well as getting pathologically drunk afterwards. Of course, what one remembers is not necessarily all there is to what was good for one’s learning. But in addition to all the arguments presented above, my gut feeling is that Essex is taking the right step.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

I did the Oxford BPhil back when it was exam-based and learned vastly more from my two years’ preparing to write three tough and wide-ranging exams than I did from writing my supposedly creative but in fact crappy BPhil thesis. And nowadays I remember things I read and learned in those two years better than many things I read last week.

I give exams only in second and third year courses, not above. And they’re in addition to two essays, so they count for 35% or 40% of the final grade. Students who want to write a creative or original essay often do best to pick a smaller topic, one where there’s room for new thoughts. So they don’t do much synthesizing or connecting of different ideas in their essay. The exam gets them to do that, and across a much broader range than a single essay does. Or rather preparing for the exam does, which to me is the main purpose of the exercise.Report

Jenny Saul
Jenny Saul
5 years ago

I took “year-end philosophy exams” to refer to the old system in which the mark would depend wholly on exams at the end of the year, or even the degree: the system still in place, to my knowledge, at Oxbridge. My impression is that most UK universities are now like US universities in using a mixture of assessment methods.Report