First we shall look at the necessity for assessing the progress of students. This will help us better understand the different types of assessment-schemes so that we may compare them. The need for assessment of the progress of students is to get a better grasp of their ability, strengths and weaknesses and how they stand relative to each other. This is to help, on the one hand, the student to improve upon his/her performance, and on the other hand, to facilitate the evaluator in his/her task of evaluating.
We also need to understand continuous assessment and timed-written examinations if we are to compare them. Continuous assessment is the system in which the students’ progress is checked using assignments, projects, write-ups and even lab-work or experiments, on a weekly if not on a daily basis. Timed-written examination is the system in which one test is taken generally towards the end of the period of study. To determine which of these is more efficient we will need to look at two different aspects: effectiveness at educating and effectiveness at assessment for the sake of ranking or selecting students.
We need to look at both methods keeping in mind many factors, including but not limited to, time, stress, memory and ability, etc. These are the major factors on which both systems differ in working or results achieved. First we will look at how these factors affect education and then in the end we will compare these methods as a tool to measure the ability of students.
At first glance, timed written examinations seem to help with time-management while continuous assessment inculcates regularity, but after a closer look it seems as if both work roughly the same way with respect to the time factor, only differing in the levels they work on. In fact, both of these things teach regularity as well as time-management. In the examination scheme you have to allocate time for studies for a long period, while in the continuous system you have to micromanage time on a daily or at least a weekly basis. In case of regularity similar arguments can be made, the only difference is that the continuous system provides more incentive to be regular compared to the single-examination way. So with respect to the time factor we can conclude that both are more or less on the same footing, but still the single-examination system doesn’t ensure that students will be regular, they should be but without enough incentive it isn’t ensured.
With the single exam method, the students get only one opportunity to prove themselves. This pressure leads to stress, “What if I don’t do well this time?” Such questions plague the student during the time of the exam. With the continuous system, since each assignment or project is lightweight, the problem of stress is not so acute. The single exam system is sometimes like the Russian roulette – for the unprepared – while the continuous system is only a gentle prodding towards the right direction. Though a bit extreme this kind of an analogy can be made. It then comes down to if a small but constant pressure is better or just a single but big pressure. Different people work better in different circumstances but for the purpose of imbibing knowledge it can be assumed that the continuous system will be a little better.
We also need to look at the kind of educating that each system is inclined towards. In continuous assessment, we keep checking the students’ ability; their proficiency in the skills that are being taught in that course. The single exam system’s focus is to check how good a memory a person has. Thinking on a long time scale, it is not clear which system will help retain more knowledge. The continuous system requires only short memory, but due to regular use it may slowly build a person’s capacity to memorize. On the other hand, the single exam method is clearly helpful to people with better memory but they need only keep it in their heads for a short time. The continuous system allows for easy and early diagnosis of problems faced by the students. Also, as proficiency is more important than memory for education, it can be assumed that the continuous system is better.
Generalising and saying that a method is more effective may not be possible, but selectively we can conclude the effectiveness of one over other. For example: if these assessments are to help the student improve then continuous assessment wins. If it is for the instructor’s benefit then written exams triumph. Further, continuous assessment would be better for subjects in which a skill has to be learnt, while in purely theoretical subjects, such as history, a single, written examination would suffice. Furthermore, for purposes of quantitative assessment by the teacher, written exam remains the best method. So although there are certain areas where one method is better, there is no clear winner.
For the purpose of ranking or selection the single-exam system is much better due to the lack of time. It is always easier to select or rank students based on a single-exam, more importantly it is faster. The only case where the continuous system may be of use for selection is when there is a need to know of the improvement in students but even then it is at the cost of time.
When talking about efficiency we need to take practical matters like resources into consideration. Resources can be categorized into two types; time and material. Here time is from the instructor’s point of view, they need to give a lot of their time in the continuous system. In the single exam way they can get away with just a burst of time spent checking the answers. The continuous system, although, in some sense ensures regularity in teachers too. Still, there remains the flip-side of never ending work. Material resources are the questions that the instructors have to provide or the notes that students take. In all cases material resources are stacked against the continuous system. The continuous assessment system is resource heavy which is not so much of a problem in the single written exam.
Neither of these methods is more effective in a general sense, but in some scenarios we can confidently choose one over another. The most important thing to remember here is to select these systems and methods according to the need and to use them judiciously.