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Exam and forms of examination


Exams are one of the greatest single factors contributing to students’ choices of study strategy. The form of examination chosen determines the students’ study strategy (the way they work with the content of the course throughout the semester). So it is relevant to take an interest in the exam, not only in terms of the connection between the chosen form of examination and the learning objectives of the course, but also how this influences the students’ study strategy.


Exams viewed from the different perspectives of students and teachers

Teachers and students tend to view exams in two different ways. The students typically focus on the exam from the start of the course and use their expectations regarding the exam actively in their study choices and priorities. The teachers, however, tend to view the exam as a final activity which is more or less disconnected from the teaching itself.

Figure: Teacher and students tend to view exams in two different ways

Diversity and systematic variation

Different forms of examination test different forms of knowledge, skills and competences. So when view in isolation, there are no good or bad forms of examination. Different forms of examination also favour different students; partly owing to their academic strengths and weaknesses, and partly owing to language, gender, ethnicity etc. In order to avoid one-sided favouritism of selected forms of knowledge, skills, competences and particular student qualifications, the form of examination chosen should be viewed in relation to both the course in question and the degree programme as a whole.

The exams are usually defined in the academic regulations. Each exam can often be regarded as a didactic framework for the course concerned.

The backwash effect

The way in which the teaching is influenced by the exam is known as the ‘backwash effect’. The backwash effect can lead to both desirable and undesirable study strategies. Here is an example of a positive backwash effect: a portfolio exam motivates the students to work intensively and systematically throughout the entire semester, and not only in the exam period. And here is an example of an undesirable backwash effect: an oral exam or a written exam on a topic of the student’s choice only motivates the students to read a selection of the syllabus thoroughly. 


Teachers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What do the students need to learn?
  • What is the connection between the learning objectives of the course, the planned teaching activities, the students’ qualifications and the exam (content and form)?
  • Which desirable and undesirable study strategies will be encouraged by the form of examination?