The purpose of assessment is very important. Is it to assess
our students or is it to assess the effectiveness of our teaching?
And is it correct to have the same criteria for all kinds
of assessment? We have to think deeply about these, for it
is part and parcel of our professional duties and responsibilities.
As recent as two years ago, we still had the British external
examiner system in which we had to send our exam papers for
vetting way ahead of time, even before teaching began. Hence,
we had always been constrained by assessment. But most faculties
have now changed the system. The examination questions
are now vetted by the external examiner only after the event.
As far as the registrar’s office is concerned, the deadline
submission of exam papers is one month ahead for printing
and processing. However, if the deans and the heads are
“kiasu” and bring this deadline forward by one
or two months,
we would be stuck with the old system again. We should also
aim to decentralize our examination process. We have decided
to gain some valuable experience by first decentralizing the
postgraduate examination process.
It is always painful to have to change. But it will be ridiculous
if we do not. We are now experimenting with more empowerment,
I would really like to see a total empowerment like the
system which I had experienced as a visiting professor at
University in 1983. I went to the head of department and asked
him when I would have to submit my exam paper. His reply
was: “I don’t have time to read your exam paper.
What I had
time to read in detail was your C.V. and when the universitycouncil
approved of your appointment as visiting professor,
that was it. You decide how to set your exam questions; you
decide the number of questions to set and the format of the
paper. You decide the grades.”
That was full empowerment. I liked that as a teacher and
think we should set it as our target. If you think about it,
day when you become a head of department, would you really
have time to read all those exam questions? Are you an expert
in that particular area to critique one of your experts and
that the question is too difficult or too easy? And when a
has done only half the question and the professor decides
give him 80% of the mark, can you challenge him?
So what we have been doing is not very effective. Time is
better spent in a session like this when we discuss what we
trying to achieve through assessment. We have to think about
it. If we do not, we are not fair to ourselves, the department
and the system. The university depends a lot on our teachers
to provide feedback to us on the effectiveness of their teaching,
on how they find it in the field. Are we wasting our
teachers’ time? Are we wasting our students’ time?
spend three or four years with us as undergraduates—very
precious time. Are we fair to them?
Assessment can help the students to learn, particularly continuous
assessment, class test, assignment; less so for the major
exam. Perhaps the major exam could be used to tell the society
whether a particular student deserves a scholarship or whether
he is a fairly weak student. But if we really think about
it, thefundamental purpose of assessment is to help a student
know whether he has really understood the subject.
I have circulated a paper on active teaching. Here is an
example of active teaching/learning:
A Harvard professor thought that he had been doing a
good job teaching first year physics because he had done
it for more than ten years. One day, he read a paper about
the ineffectiveness of the conventional teaching method
and the advantage of active learning. He did not believe
and decided to test it. He was teaching Newton’s third
law. This is High School physics—Action Equals Reaction
—common sense. Normally, he would set the tutorial
questions and 90% would get them right. But this time
he decided to test whether the students really understood.
So he devised a simple problem: One big truck and one
small truck collided. Is the big truck exerting a bigger
force on the small truck? Half the class said: “Yes”,
half said: “No”. Yet they were just taught the
To implement active learning, he then formed four small
groups for students to discuss and argue among themselves.
Ten minutes later, 90% got it right. This raises a
question over the conventional way of teaching and assessment.
With the conventional system, weaker students
would have a superficial understanding of the subject
and only the very bright ones would get into the deeper
level of understanding. It would help tremendously if the
students could discuss and help each other understand
We have to ask ourselves whether the way we assess,
teach and engage students in discussion is effective. Do
we compromise on our teaching because we have to complete
the syllabus? Or is it because the exam questions
have already been set? Think about it.
There is a real case which someone wrote to me about.
To qualify for engineering, our students usually need a
minimum of two A’s and one B. Most of these students
going to the U.K. will end up with a minimum of a second
upper, if not a first class honours. And every year,
we are dealing with eight or nine hundred of them, yet
only thirty or so get a first class honours, a hundred or
will get a second upper, while the majority will be second
lower, and some will go into third class and so on. We
thought this bell curve was very good.
One of our second lower students went to do the GRE
and the TOEFL. He had an almost perfect TOEFL score
and 2100 points for the GRE. When we have overseas
applicants with such scores, we would offer them a postgraduate
scholarship. But this is our second lower student.
Are we too strict in our assessment? This student
who is labelled second lower may one day be the managing
director of a large engineering company and try to
fund our research. Are we caught by the bell curve? Not
every student will be a professor and this is certainly not
our goal. Are we assessing them based on who has the
potential to be a professor?
I will touch on two more topics very briefly; first, about
creativity. Increasingly, we are setting our purpose to educate
in such a way that our students will not only have
sufficient knowledge to work in the society and continue
to learn, but they must also be creative. Our country has
reached an advanced stage of development where the conventional
solutions may not work anymore. Some of our
students are engaged by top companies and they have to
produce world-class products. Some will become entrepreneurs
competing with the best in the world. They have
to come up with creative ideas and solutions. But during
their years with us, have we engaged them in this kind of
learning and given them the opportunity to think of creative
solutions? Teaching creativity is a challenge. Assessing
creativity is another.
The first thing to do is to read more about creativity. We
should then ask ourselves some questions: Have we read
the top three books in this area? Have we read the top
ten papers about creative teaching? Better still, have we
been practising creative teaching and have we been confident
enough to share our experience with colleagues?
The second and associated topic is open-book exams.
There is a lot of resistance against open-book tests and
exams. They are difficult to carry out. Unlike the conventional
way of assessing, there are few examples available
If we really think about it, open-book exams is real life.
Today I am standing here; it is an open-book exam for
me. I can bring books and notes but they will not really
help me when I do not know the topic that I am talking
about. There is nothing wrong if I forget some details
and refer to my notes and a few sheets of data. So in open-book
exams the books are not really very helpful
although they could help psychologically. By the time
one reads them to seek new understanding, two hours
would have gone.
So, what is holding us back? If we say that it is unfair
because students can refer to chapter five and then copy
the first two paragraphs and score an A, then our exam
question is set wrongly in the first place because we are
testing memory recall. We should assume that if a student
is training to be a medical doctor, he must know the
fundamentals. An engineer designing a bridge must also
know the basics. So we do not test this type of knowledge
anymore. But they may not remember 100% of the
material, they may remember 90%; so they could refer
to a book for the details they may have forgotten. But if
they do not understand such knowledge, even if they refer
to books, it is useless. We should be testing how they
apply the concepts and whether they know which concepts
to apply. So by that understanding, every paper can
Looking at the statistics, we are hardly reaching 20% in
open-book exams. I would argue that postgraduate should
be 100%; final year should be 100%; and we can aim at
50-50 for first year. But we are far from these figures.
We are nervous because it is new to us. We should set
ourselves a five-year target. It will be embarrassing to
be caught in a situation where we are said to be a worldclass
institution, yet there are still major practices that
are not world-class. We are preparing our students for
the 21st century, but more than 80% of our exams are
I hope I have achieved what I have set out to achieve—
to stimulate you to think about the subject of assessment.
Please ask questions and continue to challenge me by
sending me e-mails. You have to be sporting, knowing
that I am still experimenting with new ideas in order to
pioneer changes. But I am single-handed unless you give
me more input and feedback so I could use these to
strengthen my case when I discuss the issue with the deans
and the heads. Hopefully together, we will move in the right