In my department we grade degrees based on four sets of exams – two in the second year, and two in the third year. In the University it is standard to assess students across the bulk of their courses like this. The alternative, which I presume used to happen at my University, and still does in some places such as Oxford and Cambridge, is to assess students in one set of finals at the very end of their courses. I can see that having one set of finals like this is a harsh discipline – especially for those who find exams stressful. Continuous assessment feels ‘fairer’ somehow.
Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if finals might be in fact be fairer, and might be based on a more inspiring model of what happens at a University. Continuous assessment seems to imply that students are receptacles, being filled with knowledge, regurgitating that knowledge at each stage and being assessed on their ability to do this at each point. Conversely, finals express the hope that education will be transformative. Over their time a student will be changed so that they can do some things, things which they were unable to do previously. Assessment on their final ability says ‘we are interested in what you have become, not what you were. We care what you are now able to do, not what you were once unable to do’.
Continuous assessment seems to discriminate against those who get the most out of University education – rewarding those who have been fortunate to grasp the essential model of absorbing and reformulating abstract information before they arrive.