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'Absurd' exam questions make sense in learning

Embedded in Mr Ezra Ho's point about how the emphasis on "holistic" and "creative" thinking has resulted in "absurdly" difficult examination questions ("Withholding PSLE top scorers' names a superficial fix"; last Sunday) is a "trade-off" that many of us have yet to realise.

Many people utilise buzzwords like "creative thinking" and "critical analysis" to describe what examinations should assess.

However, on many internationally recognised pedagogical models, such as Bloom's Taxonomy and The Structure Of Observed Learning Outcomes Taxonomy - which have been utilised in various educational literature in Singapore - the ability to properly analyse and evaluate concepts, or to integrate different concepts, has always been prized as "top-level" learning outcomes.

These require students to possess higher cognitive abilities to tackle more difficult questions.

In the context of examinations, "absurd" questions are not actually absurd, but merely questions which require candidates to look at concepts in a new way.

Such questions are, in fact, examples of the top-level learning outcomes of the aforementioned pedagogical models.

It is time for schools to engage in teaching and assessment methods which are formulated on assessment practices that are more progressive and formative, gradually getting students to move from point A to point B and eventually point Z.

Many would like to believe that there is a middle ground, where examination questions are easy and also not ones that reward "rote learning".

Speaking from experience, it does not exist.

We should not go back to a system based on rote learning just so examinations can be made easier.

Rather, it is time for schools to engage in teaching and assessment methods which are formulated on assessment practices that are more progressive and formative, gradually getting students to move from point A to point B and eventually point Z.

These methods should achieve the learning outcomes in a more cumulative manner, rather than expecting students to go from point A to point Z in an instant during a summative examination.

Such methods are elaborated in educational literature in Singapore such as Alternative Assessment In Schools: A Qualitative Approach.

These methods that allow for greater depth of learning require time that schools often do not have owing to the rush to complete syllabuses, a separate issue in itself that requires greater attention.

Ng Chia Wee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline ''Absurd' exam questions make sense in learning'. Print Edition | Subscribe