This is the traditional form of summative assessment. Students are confronted with a number of questions, in essay, problem, short-answer or multiple-choice format, about which they have either minimal or no prior information, and have to produce answers in a set period, with recourse to no other resources than those in their heads, or specific equipment provided by the examiner.
- Unseen examinations are seen as one of the most secure forms of assessment because they take place in a highly controlled and invigilated environment.
- Proponents of examinations point out that they are one of the few ways of ensuring that students revise the entire syllabus, and commit it to memory. Unfortunately, such memory is—if not short-term—closely tied to the stimulus of the examination event.
- As suggested above, students may simply "mug up" the facts and re-gurgitate them (relevant or not).
- Examinations typically generate high degrees of anxiety, amounting to cognitive paralysis on the part of some candidates. They call for very specific skills, which may well be irrelevant to the subject being examined, and are therefore often low on validity, but high on discrimination potential.
- In the humanities and social sciences, in particular, exams are deceptively easy to set. In maths, pure and applied sciences, individual questions may be difficult and time-consuming to devise, but this is largely a matter of ensuring their individual consistency and that the issues addressed do not exceed the content and level of the module.
- Little attention is usually paid to the overall impact of the exam represented in the spread of questions and the opportunities afforded to the student to display their capabilities. The underlying assumption of setting exams often seems to be, "Let's see how we can catch them out", rather than "What will give them the opportunity to display their knowledge?"
- I enjoyed exams as a student. I treated them as a game to be played, and I liked developing my skill as an academic game-player. I have met very few people since then who have shared my perverse taste! In a sense, I regret having to be rather negative about them as a means of assessment.
- Even so, the only exam I took which really embodied the best principles was one on "European History 410-529 AD" set by Dr James Shiel. Only six of us took the course, taught exclusively in tutorials of two people. Each week, one of us would prepare an essay on an agreed topic of our choice, read it in the tutorial, and then we would discuss it. The essays were marked, but I don't think they counted towards the final assessment. When we got to the exam in "finals" (now almost disappeared, with modular programmes), each of us found at least two questions (out of the three we had to answer) which were the titles of the essays we had written. I can still discuss the Nestorian-Monophysite controversy in a reasonably informed manner (not that I get much of an opportunity to).