Jan Bransen

Column Jan Bransen: Studying without passing exams

For most students, it is self-evident on a daily basis: if you are studying you are supposed to make progress and that is a matter of passing exams. Although self-evident, it is, as far as I'm concerned, a conviction that not only distorts our students, but also our lecturers and the education itself. It is an assumption that turns education into something it shouldn't be.

Obviously, I cannot substantiate that properly in a column of 500 words. That is why I'm happy we have founded a Special Interest Group within the TLC that focuses on what function assessment serves in academic education and is organising a conference for lecturers at Radboud University on 8 December this year. 

This column is nothing more than a warm-up, a first attempt to lightly stagger this distorted self-evidence. If you think of the number of passed exams, you can do nothing more than see progress in your studies as a linear process. After all, the number of passed exams can only increase. Once passed, always passed. Yet no one’s cognitive development is linear. Any academic can tell you that. It is the failed experiment of which you learn the most, the argument you just cannot substantiate, the realisation you were looking in the wrong place the whole time. De-learning is crucial for our cognitive development and brain scientists can explain why. Philosophers as well, by the way, who know the dialectics of Plato, Cusanus, or Hegel, but that is beside the point. 

So how do you visualise such a non-linear cognitive development? How do you know for sure that a student takes a step back to prepare for the next jump? Is it not procrastination? Is it no weak and lazy work by a calculating student? These are questions that we never ask ourselves in this simple manner when looking at the unpredictable behaviour of our research subject. As researchers, we should know better. 60 EC per year, spread across 10 to 20 exams... How unbelievably naïve to think that we can adequately document our students’ cognitive development with so few data points.  

And the student is also fundamentally misled by all those assessments. Every exam is a huge attention grabber that distracts students from their development more than all those messages and push notifications they receive on their smartphones while in a lecture. High school has made it clear over and over again and our university testing policy only reinforces this: studying is a matter of passing exams. Why would you ever think that it is about professional as well as personal development? Right? 

Or could it only be done without exams? The same way we, as colleagues, keep developing for the entirety of our lives, without making each other take exams. Let us think and dream about it together on 8 December. Will I see you there? 

Sign up for the conference

Contact information

Jan Bransen is Academic Leader of the Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre and Professor Philosophy of Behavioural Sciences.

E: jan.bransen [at] ru.nl