It is often found that among students getting good grades in exams gets a higher priority over ensuring that they are learning with understanding. Teachers emphasise concepts and types of questions that are prevalent and commonly tested in exams, and students practice the problems either given in textbooks or from past exam papers, mostly with the intent of getting a high score in the exam. In this process, teaching and learning with understanding gets deprioritized. This issue of an almost obstructive focus on scores is also recognised in the recently launched, NEP 2020, which makes the case to transform assessments from one based on rote memorisation skills to one that is more diagnostic-based and tests higher-order skills.

Most school exams and board exams contain questions that are framed very similarly to the ones given in textbooks. Students rote learn the procedures or solutions to these questions, and respond to the question without understanding the given problem. Even though some of these questions may be testing understanding or application skills, since they are directly from the textbook or utilising the same context or format, they often end up testing recall skill. And this is not a problem that is prevalent only in specific schools. In 2006 and 2010, Ei, in collaboration with Wipro, conducted studies which were published in India Today, The Hindu and Mint publications. These studies showed that the problem of rote learning existing even in our ‘top’ schools — the performance of Grade 4 students in these top schools was below international average. Further, the situation did not improve in the intervening years. [I]

If students solves the questions given in the textbook or similar questions given in the school exam correctly, can we guarantee that they have learnt the concept with actual understanding? Due to the ubiquity of rote learning, unfortunately, we can’t.

Let us verify this with an example. Can we say that the three questions shown below (Q1 – Q3) tests the same concept? If yes, then why do you think performance of students varies so widely on these questions?

The questions test the concepts of mensuration covered in Grade 6 and 7 in Mathematics. They are framed to test if students can apply the concept of ‘Area’ and find the number of small tiles needed to cover a larger area if the measures of both shapes are given. Q1 is quite similar to the questions framed in textbooks. In textbook examples, the side lengths of the larger area are a multiple of the side lengths of the small area. So, students procedurally solve the question by dividing the areas of both shapes. But in real life we may not find a situation where tiles exactly fit any given tiling area, thus, a child who has not understood the concept deeply will be left looking askance.

Q2 and Q3 test the same concept. However, they contain more realistic examples and the way the questions are framed is unfamiliar to students. 63.5% Grade 7 students have answered Q1 correctly but only 14.4% and 24.6% students have answered Q2 and Q3 correctly. In Q2, a common problem that students will encounter in their daily lives while doing any kind of craftwork is used. Most students have NOT reasoned how to divide effectively to reduce wastage and get maximum number of rectangles. Around 40% of them just solved the problem procedurally as (36 x 28) / (7 x 10) and answered 14. These students would have answered Q1 correctly. In Q3, 50% students have answered 30. They have not reasoned that by doubling the length, the area of the tile would become 4 times and hence only 1/4th of the number of tiles is enough to cover the same area.

Thus, we see asking unfamiliar questions not only assesses students’ real learning, it also stimulates students’ thinking. If most questions in an examination are using a familiar format or context as used in textbooks, the questions may not help in knowing if students have actually understood the concept or are answering just based on rote learnt procedures. They may also dull the child’s problem-solving skills and creative thinking.

‘Review of High Stakes Examination Instruments in Primary and Secondary School in Developing Countries’, a RISE Working Paper by Dr Newman Burdett published in 2017, mentions that Indian examination papers are heavily biased to reward rote-learning, as they do not test higher order skills, and actively discourage students who try and display them. Though the report shows that the Indian board paper of Mathematics contains mostly application-based questions, it also mentions that “it could be argued that if learners are instructed using past papers that most of the questions classified as application could be recall”. (Burdett, N., 2017)[II]

In the face of time constraints most teachers repeat textbook questions in the exam paper as it is, or by modifying a few details. Thus, such assessments may not solve the actual purpose of the assessment which is identifying the gaps in the understanding of a student. Though creating questions using unfamiliar context or format is time-consuming, we suggest teachers to begin with creating at least 20% of questions in the paper making use of examples and context that is different from the one mentioned in the child’s textbook. Slowly the number of such unfamiliar questions can be increased once teachers gain expertise in creating such questions. These will go a long way in establishing a deeper understanding of the concept in a child’s mind.

Teachers can use some of the techniques mentioned below to create unfamiliar questions.

Use real-life contexts with authentic data

Solving problems that exist in the day-to-day life of a student makes the process of education more meaningful and solving such problems keeps the student engaging. Using real-life contexts that are typically not used in school textbooks, and suitable to particular age group is recommended. A few such examples are shown below.

Frame the question to test deeper understanding of the concept and not mechanical learning of formulae and procedures

The questions, Q6 and Q7, shown below test the understanding of mixed fractions. 78% students can convert a given mixed fraction into improper fraction which is present in most textbook exercises. But do they understand the meaning of the procedure they follow to convert the mixed fraction? Q4 performance shows that almost 60% of class 7 students didn’t understand the meaning of mixed fraction that 7 2/3 is 2/3 more than 7. Hence, questions should be framed to test the deeper understanding of the procedure than just testing the procedure itself.

Creating questions testing higher-order cognitive skills

Some part of the assessment should test the higher order cognitive skills like ‘Analysis’, ‘Evaluation’ and ‘Creation’. In general, most textbook problems focus on the cognitive skills like ‘Recall/ Memorisation’ and ‘Application’. Hence questions that test higher order skills will naturally be unfamiliar. Some examples are shared below.

We hope this article will help teachers and educators achieve the NEP’s vision of transforming assessments and improving student learning outcomes.