Education and its Assessment

   Posted by: Janahan Balasingham   in Experience, Opinions

I’ve wanted to write this article/blog for a while now but never got the time until now. I recently did my Masters in Software Engineering at City University London which is a very reputable university in United Kingdom. The course seemed like a valuable one that was covering many areas from requirement analysis, system design, system development etc. It basically taught people who are interested in software development of its stages and practices.

However, what I found strange was how they evaluated the module teaching. While some modules were purely coursework based (scenario is given and a solution must be derived using knowledge that was taught), some of the modules had examinations. These examinations were timed and they were not using a computer but through pen/pencil and paper.

Now I can understand that practice for courses that are theoretical. Or courses that requires a lot of writing. But as a software engineer, most of the time you will be using a computer to write a document, draw the designs or write the code. On emergency cases you may have to write it but it’s a rare thing.

So when you are asked to draw a class diagram or sequence diagram in an exam, time is spent on drawing the lines and boxes for the diagrams and it can’t be rushed through as the symbols represents the relations in the diagrams. This is a time consuming task which is totally unnecessary as a developer will most probably be using a tool like Microsoft Visio or Borland Together to drag and drop the diagrams in real world scenario. After all, what is important is whether the diagram represents the solution clearly or not.

Furthermore, when you are asked to write code on paper, you have to worry about many problems. The syntax concerns is complicated enough in a computer and it is worse when you are trying to write it in a piece of paper. Imagine someone trying to write a semi colon and in a hurry, it looks like a colon. Or a double quote looking like a single quotation mark. All these will be syntax errors that will cost in marking when it doesn’t have to.

Personally, I have always been slow on writing. My typing speed is pretty good and compared to my writing, my typing can be called lightening quick (that’s how slow I write). So by making me write the answers instead of typing in a software engineer exam, they are basically handicapping me. Can they fully evaluate my potential or the knowledge I’ve learned because I was unable to answer all the questions in given time as my writing was slow? I don’t think so.

A coursework is a very good way to evaluate a person’s skill as they need to use what they learned to solve the problem given in the scenario. If the student doesn’t know it or didn’t learn it during lecture/tutorial, s/he will have to research and read about it to solve the problem. So coursework give a clear indication of what one knows. However, this can be abused. A student may get another friend or family member to do it on their behalf. That is a realistic problem coursework faces.

So exams are partly necessary. But why are they done in pen and paper? Wouldn’t it be more productive for the test to be conducted using a computer? Can they cheat? Not if you take proper precautions. The computer won’t have network connections or input devices (no USB ports, card readers etc.) other than keyboard or mouse. That would eliminate anyone from bringing their own pre-written code/diagrams to be used. Software installed in the computer will be related and essential to the exam (ex: Visio installed for Class and Sequence Diagram). If they want to evaluate someone on their coding skills without tools like Visual Studio or Borland C++ or Eclipse/Netbeans, then they can have only a notepad available. This would eliminate writing mishaps that may result in syntax errors.

By doing that, they will get a much better understanding of how much a student has learned from the module. After all, the primary goal of the course is to educate the student to a level at where they can operate in a professional environment. The examination is to prove that and the certificate is to confirm they showed their skills in a tested situation. Truthfully, using the pen and paper method to evaluate a software engineer who will be in a computer most of the time doesn’t give a clear picture.

I do not claim I knew all the answers and would have gotten full marks if it weren’t for my writing problem. I feel that the exam does not clearly reflect my knowledge and skill as a coursework did and if given a different technique like I mentioned above, I would have done better. And for a computer engineer course, is it wrong to expect to operate a computer instead of pen and paper in a testing ground? Shouldn’t we evolve with the technology in our assessment of skills?

FYI: Even though I didn’t get to finish any of the exams on time, I managed to get decent grades in what I wrote and good grades in the coursework. Unfortunately, most of the exam + coursework modules placed more value on exam than coursework thereby affecting my overall average for the module.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, April 15th, 2012 at 1:23 pm and is filed under Experience, Opinions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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